A diploma helped open a path forward to Sanji Afruz. It's a symbol of the obstacles she's already cleared. Afruz was once in the foster care system.
Right now, there are more than 6,000 children in foster care in New York City. Nationwide, there are nearly 400,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, children in foster care are at high risk of dropping out of school and are unlikely to attend or graduate from college.
"I have always wanted to go to school, but I wasn't sure how to really reach higher education," Afruz said.
Ina Mendez is the deputy commissioner of the Division of Family Permanency Services in New York City. The agency oversees a program called College Choice. This project provides housing, tutoring, coaching and financial aid to foster care students in New York City.
"We're committed to outcomes. New York is in a unique position that we continue to support children up to 21 that are in foster care," Mendez said, "And so by providing the cost or covering the cost of their tuition and housing, they only have to focus on school."
According to the University of Washington, 35 states have some sort of college tuition waiver or scholarship for students in foster care, and 24 states have tuition waivers.
New York offers a statewide scholarship. New York City took it a step further with housing and a $60 per day stipend for students enrolled in school.
"Because you have to understand, every time someone's doing a budget list for a youth in college, you're doing the general as a youth that was in foster care, our expenses are a lot more not because we need fancier things, but because simple as how many times have we been moved? And within one year, every time you move, there are more expenses. I'm getting rid of things. I have to buy more things," Afruz said.
Sonia Gonzalez oversees college access for the city. While it's about the students, she's also thinking about the future of New York City.
"We're not only thinking of them right now, but we're thinking of how much will this investment continue to reinvest in the growth of our city here in New York City and wherever they choose to go after graduation? So totally, it's a blessing," Gonzalez said.
That's the plan for Afruz. She earned a bachelor's and master's degree. And after a short trip to learn about her roots in her native Bangladesh she now plans to give back to the community she knows so well — helping those in foster care.
"Someone gave me something and it's not for me to keep. It's for me to water, to make it bigger. Maybe one day I will, you know, start fruiting and everyone else can enjoy the fruits from it. So, it's not for just me," Afruz said.
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