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St. Pete Pearls program aims to help students who spent time in foster care obtain degrees

Assistant Director of Student Outreach and Support Joseph Contes spearheaded the creation of St. Pete Pearls so students who spent time in foster care could find resources to help them through their college careers. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

USF is fostering hope for some students by implementing St. Pete Pearls, a new program that seeks to close the degree attainment gap for individuals who have been involved in the foster care system.

Research by the U.S. Education Commission in 2019 found only 3%, or 13,200, of the 440,000 kids in foster care will obtain a bachelor’s degree, but the new St. Pete Pearls program aims to increase that percentage.

The program, developed at the St. Pete campus during summer 2020 and currently being implemented across all campuses, focuses on providing students who spent time in the foster care system with resources to help them overcome any barriers they face during their time at USF. 

Joseph Contes, assistant director of Student Outreach and Support on the St. Pete campus, spearheaded the creation and implementation of the St. Pete Pearls program to bridge a gap in foster student achievement. Based on research by the developers of the St. Pete Pearls program, 80% of foster children across the country want to obtain a bachelor’s degree, but only 10% actually complete a program, according to Contes.

“The St. Pete Pearls is a unique program, one of the first of its kind within the Tampa Bay region that supports young adult students emerging from the foster care system,” Contes said. “When we look at this unique population, we see that there is an educational gap, or a degree attainment gap, for these young adults.” 

Most of the assistance offered through the program is with securing tuition exemptions and monthly stipends from the state of Florida, according to Contes. The state of Florida provides tuition exemptions to students who spent at least six months of their lives in the foster care system. The state also gives students who were in the Florida foster care system a $1,250 monthly stipend if they fill out a waiver each semester.

Under the St. Pete Pearls, students will get support when applying for financial aid and be paired with a mentor to learn college and life skills like financial literacy. Volunteer mentorship applications are open to faculty, staff and students.

“A foster student will be assigned based on certain attributes that they have and have prioritized with attributes that the mentor has prioritized so that is a successful match,” Contes said. “And that mentor will just casually engage and just be there of support for the student as well.” 

All mentors will go through a mandatory training program that the leaders of St. Pete Pearls are currently finalizing which will teach potential mentors skills and resources they will need to know about when helping the students through their time in college. 

The program receives no state funding, according to Contes, which is something he hopes to remedy. Currently, the funding is only provided through Student Outreach Services. St. Pete Pearls has mainly been developed and implemented by people who are employed in other areas who are working on the program because they feel strongly about its goals and impacts. 

“We’re still hoping that we get donors to help fund us moving forward with a lot of our other initiatives,” he said. 

Aside from connecting students with mentors and financial aid, Contes said the goal of the program is to connect students with “a place where they feel they belong.” Students will be able to meet each other, attend events together and once in-person activities resume, hang out in their own St. Pete Pearls lounge in the Pianoman building, according to Contes.

“[The lounge] will be a resource-based place that will have a computer, some lounge spaces, a TV and a place for the students to meet with the person who might be leading a particular group that they’re going to be working with,” Contes said. “It is a safe space to chill and hang out. Something exclusive just for them, so that they have and can make connections with those who have like-minded experiences.” 

Contes aims to designate similar spaces for students on the Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee campuses once in-person activity resumes as well. 

Students in the program will also be connected to resources based on their own needs, according to Contes. He said some students may need help with financial literacy or with tasks like getting an apartment, and the St. Pete Pearls program will be able to help with those individualized needs as well. 

The program will identify students who spent time within the foster care system during the admission process, according to Contes. The admissions application now features an option for the students to select if they have been in foster care. 

“We’ve changed a question on one version of the application for this cycle,” Contes said. “We are moving towards getting the same question on all three versions of the USF application which is a broad question that asks the applicant ‘Have you been involved in the foster care system?’”

Students previously involved in the foster care system will be contacted by the St. Pete Pearls. They can decline the assistance, but program leaders will still reach out to the student throughout their time at USF to see if they need any help or support. Contes said that many students were unaware of resources already available to them. 

“Several students thought that they only had to fill out the waiver [for the tuition exemption] once, but it has to be done every semester before add/drop week,” Contes said. “So you’ve had students who didn’t get that waiver in time and then had a bill and didn’t know that they could petition past that deadline, with particular offices, so we wanted to provide a unique support to this.”  

For out-of-state students, the program will work to help them find financial aid and other resources that can connect them with funding. 

Regional Chancellor of the St. Pete campus Martin Tadlock fostered children over the years. He said the initiative is of great importance to him since it helps a population of students who already had a special place in his heart to succeed. 

“We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to complete degrees at the same rate as all our students do in the student population so we’re excited about that,” Tadlock said. “I think we’re the only place in Florida that will have that available, so I think it’s really exciting.” 

For Contes and other leaders of the St. Pete Pearls, the program is a matter of passion. 

“When I see a student overcome a barrier that they’ve had and that they’ve made a change, that’s when my heart explodes,” he said.