This story originally appeared on KERA News.
When homeless high school kids get to college, what happens to them during the holidays? Texas Woman’s University in Denton is a leader in helping those with no home for the holidays.
Some college kids far from home may get invited to a friends’ place for the short Thanksgiving break. But at the end of December, with three or four weeks off, it’s time to head home.
Unless you’re Emily Williams.
“Especially during Christmas, it’s like I can’t…. Where am I going to stay?” asks Williams, a 23-year-old sophomore at TWU. “Because I would be like, living in my car.”
Williams, a psychology major, transferred here from Kilgore Community College in East Texas.
“And so I specifically asked housing ‘can I stay here for the whole month?’ And they said ‘yes.’ So it was like ‘thank you, Jesus,’ because I don’t know where else I would stay,” Williams said.
Thank TWU’s Frontier Program, too. Launched three years ago, it set up services especially for former foster kids and homeless students.
“The No. 1 issue is housing and it comes up again and again and again,” explains Amy O’Keefe, who runs the university’s CARE office – Campus Alliance for Resource Education.
Williams became a foster child early on. Her birth parents were repeatedly in and out of jail. She was adopted at age 9. By 10th grade, she was back under state care and confused. She never quite felt loved by her adoptive family, though she still yearned for that relationship after leaving.
“My senior year and college years, I would get invited to some family events and not all of them,” Williams says. “Like they had Thanksgiving in Virginia with their daughter and didn’t invite me. And Christmas, they didn’t invite me. So it’s sometimes like you have one foot in the door and one foot out.”
TWU’s Frontier Program provides more solid footing.
O’Keefe says the program takes over after state support in high school stops.
“And then when you look at typical questions, especially sophomore year, students’ experience with ‘well what do I want to do with my life?’” O’Keefe says. She mimics a student: “When I was 18 I thought this is what I wanted to do with my life; now, I’m not sure. I’m learning all this other stuff.”
O’Keefe says typical college students can ask their parents for advice. Frontier kids, with absentee parents, can ask program mentors, career coaches and other foster kids in the program.
Chasity Jones, a senior business major, says it feels right. It feels like family.
“It’s actually pretty fun,” she says. “I met a lot of new people. They seem pretty cool.”
Jones’ entrepreneurial spirit, with inspiration from the Frontier Program, led her to organize a teen summit last summer for younger foster kids. It mixed information with fun. The program has other hidden benefits, including dorms that stay open through the holidays.
“I don’t really like going home,” she said. “It’s kind of a lot of drama.”
Her mom is a recovering addict.
“Since TWU allows break housing, I usually stay on campus,” Jones says.
Everything else may be closed, but the school keeps a dorm worker on duty for Frontier students. There’s even a small dorm kitchen to make meals. And on Thanksgiving and Christmas? That’s when Frontier students get invitations for dinner with the chancellor and other faculty members.
This story is part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative, which charts the journey from childhood to graduation.