For many, the word "foster" immediately leads to "child." Hannah Planalp would like us to expand that thinking. After all, who among us with children in their 20s — or even 30s — feels like we're done parenting them? Planalp, 31, leads the Fostering Education Initiative at Twin Cities-based Foster Advocates, which supports fosters in reaching their dream of college or other post-secondary goals. A Korean adoptee and foster herself from Colorado, Planalp knows first-hand how one mentor can change the trajectory of a young foster's life. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Planalp was a featured speaker last month at an EDTalks presentation sponsored by AchieveMpls in partnership with the Citizens League. She tells us more about her effort below.
Q: How did you find your way from Colorado to California to Minnesota?
A: I was eager to go somewhere new for college, and California seemed far away and exotic. After college, I was drifting a little and my brother was moving to Minnesota and offered to let me crash on his couch for a while. That was seven years ago. I stayed. I love it here.
Q: Did you know about Foster Advocates (fosteradvocates.org) when you came here?
A: It's a young organization, only four years old. I heard executive director Hoang Murphy talking about foster care at a party and I had questions about his work. He invited me to serve on the board. About a year later, they convinced me to come work for them.
Q: Most people think about fosters as being the youngest children and are likely surprised to hear you putting foster and college in the same sentence. How do you help us expand our thinking?
A: We see a lot of people moving homes while in foster care, exiting and re-entering care, or becoming homeless. Even before you turn 18, there can be a lot of instability. After 18, many of us aren't immediately independent and living on our own. Their social worker support might go away, along with other networks. Even foster parents sometimes go away. For others, parenting doesn't end at 18. Think about your own kids' college experience: Where did they go for school breaks or holidays? Who did they call when they had a problem they didn't know how to solve?
Q: Tell us why you prefer the term "foster" to "foster kids," etc.?
A: Many programs are designed for young people and not with them, so they can take on language that doesn't quite fit; "youth" or "young people," for example. I'm 31, but my experience in foster care stays with me. I'm not a "foster alumni;" it's not something I graduated from. It's part of my identity. Early leaders in our network told us that capital F "foster" felt right for them.
Q: During your EDTalk, you said that nearly 80% of fosters want to go to college but only 3% are able to complete a degree by age 24. What are the biggest barriers fosters face?
A: If you look at the high school graduation numbers, it makes sense. One barrier is high school graduation itself. In 2021 in Minnesota, only 41% of fosters graduated from high school, versus 83% for all students. They face financial instability, housing insecurity, mental health struggles. If you can't meet your basic needs as you're aging out of care, graduating high school, let alone getting to and through college, can't be your priority.
Q: You emphasize that we don't have to be trained counselors to step up and help. How can any adult support a foster's college dream?
A: Reaching out is the first thing. Then listen. Fosters are experiencing challenges other people are not. Connect them to programs that will help them succeed, or refer them for a job. Review a college essay. Take them to visit a college. Help with homework. With so much relationship disruption, there aren't always people to cheer them on or celebrate their wins. Help them envision themselves in college: "Yeah, I can see you there. This is a dream you can make happen."
Q: You have first-hand experience with someone who did all of this and more for you.
A: I had a mentor in Colorado named Alec. He heard that I was homeless and took the time to ask me what was going on and get to know me. He connected me with the program that got me my scholarship, helped me open a bank account, invited me to Thanksgiving with his family, helped me put my applications together and basically looked over every paper I wrote in college. People often think that the only way to help is to become a foster parent. And not everyone can do what Alec did. But the network of people I had who were cheering me on, letting me vent when I needed to, motivated me to do what I need to do to get to college.
Q: You have some good news to share on the legislative front for others with the same dream.
A: In 2021, our foster leaders testified and got passed the Minnesota Fostering Higher Education Act, which is the most comprehensive college funding in the country for fosters. In part, the act establishes a grant equal to the cost of attendance minus the amount of any federal grants, state grants, or other scholarships or grants the individual receives. It also can be used for accredited technical and trade schools. We have a few fosters in our program already planning to attend college this fall. We are really excited to support them as they take this big step. Now we need Minnesota colleges and universities to step up and help make sure that fosters are able to succeed, too.