Pauloma Williams wasn’t sure what to expect when she first moved to New York City from Guyana as a teenager in 2014.
“It was stressful at first, learning a whole new system,” she recalled.
Adjusting to a new home environment was also a challenge. Though she lived with her father in Brooklyn at first, by 2016 Williams found herself in foster care through Graham Windham, an ACS (Administration for Children’s Services) foster care agency. (Her cousin later became her foster parent.)
As a high school student at the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment, Williams knew she wanted to go to college. She took note of CUNY’s Medgar Evers College as she regularly walked past on her way to school. “It was my dream college,” she said.
Now a 19-year-old full-time student at Medgar Evers, Williams is fulfilling her high-school goal. She’s enrolled at the college as part of CUNY’s innovative Start/ASAP Foster Care Initiative, a program funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to help young people like Williams pursue associate’s degrees at one of CUNY’s colleges. Partnering with NYC foster agencies and local community organizations, the Initiative offers tuition assistance, weekly MetroCards, paid on-campus internships, and advisory guidance to foster-care students aged 17-21.
Students with remedial needs begin in CUNY’s intensive pre-college Start program before matriculating into the full-time ASAP program, an accelerated course that aims to help students obtain their associate’s degrees within three years.
“Our [primary] hope is to help them reach graduation,” explained Mia Simon, CUNY Start’s university director, who also noted the CUNY program is now being emulated by various schools across the country. Since launching with 25 students last spring, the Foster Care Initiative now has about 90 students enrolled, and is striving to serve at least 100 this year.
The program is working, at least for Pauloma Williams. Though she remembered being “so shy” upon arriving in America, she’s currently enrolled in four classes and doing a paid social media internship. She plans to pursue Nursing as her “Plan A,” or case work as a backup path.
The only thing she has yet to fully conquer? “My professors have told me to participate more.” She’s working on it.