Sharing My Experience in foster care: What I’ve learned (so far)

"Navigating both the professional and academic portions of the child welfare system as someone who was in foster care has been interesting, frustrating, exhausting, and yet extremely rewarding."

Navigating both the professional and academic portions of the child welfare system as someone who was in foster care has been interesting, frustrating, exhausting, and yet extremely rewarding. I’m still trying to figure it all out, truthfully. I imagine my feelings will change over time and that I will (hopefully) become better at distinguishing between my personal and professional lens and merging them when appropriate.

For now, here’s what I know.

From a student/personal perspective…
I’ve learned you don’t have to share your story or be directly involved in foster care efforts to make a difference. Just because you experienced time in the foster care system does not mean you are responsible for supporting students who are currently experiencing care or for changing the child welfare system as a whole. But if you do want to be connected to the overall movement, you can do that in a variety of ways without publicly sharing your story or identifying yourself as having been in foster care

I’ve learned that self-care is extremely important. Self-care, for those who may not be familiar with the term, is the act of taking care of your individual self. This looks different for everyone, but typically it involves a nurturing or relaxing activity you enjoy. It’s a chance to re-connect with yourself. It has been vital for me to spend time reflecting and practicing self-awareness of how my professional life is impacting me personally and vice versa. I make time for it.

I set personal boundaries and limitations. I have come to realize, sometimes through experience, which professional situations can be most triggering and exhausting. I plan accordingly, leaving extra time to process or perform self-care afterward if that would be helpful. Sometimes, I say no or turn down an opportunity if it’s not a good thing for me. I’m constantly adjusting these boundaries as I go along.

I work with intention. It’s important to me that there is an ultimate goal in the work that I do, which is to increase awareness and advocacy for improved positive outcomes for young people who have experienced foster care in Michigan. I am intentional when sharing my thoughts or moments from my journey, asking myself “Why am I sharing this?” “Why is this relevant?” “Is this authentic?” “How will I feel before, during, and after sharing this?” This is exactly why I write speeches and plan out presentations beforehand, in addition to practicing (a lot) before the event.

I try to remember that it’s not about me. Frankly, It’s too late to advocate for myself. I can’t re-do undergrad all over again or go back to when I was applying for college and didn’t know all the resources available. Entering into this field isn’t about fixing my personal situation, it’s about using my experience in a professional way to make the system different for others. I don’t write this blog for me, I do it for you. I hope it’s helpful, inspiring, funny at times, and educational. I am less concerned with sharing facts about what happened in my life but rather using those facts to direct my passion and influence larger systems.

From a professional perspective…
I believe students should be offered advocacy opportunities which strengthen their resume, not weaken it.

Students should be prepared to succeed. So, prepare them! It can feel insanely overwhelming to walk into a room full of 100+ people when you were under the impression it was only going to be a small bunch, or to be asked to speak when you weren’t expecting to. Students should know what to expect and be given the support and resources they need.

Events and opportunities need to be safe for students. If sharing their story or being identified by their full name could bring physical or emotional distress, don’t do it. Safety planning can also be beneficial.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that, almost undoubtedly, being involved in any sort of advocacy effort is going to remind them of their past. Leave space for that.

Have their back. One of the best things about working with the Center for Fostering Success and Maddy Day is that I know that, if someone asks a ridiculous or inappropriate question during an event, she (or other CFS staff) will step in and either modify the question or re-direct the conversation. It never feels like it’s just me at the podium.

Think about the aftermath. Will engaging in this experience expose a student’s full name? Will it have any negative educational or professional implications? Will others want to connect with the student after hearing about their experience? If so, is the student prepared to deal with that? How might a student’s social media presence be impacted by or impact their decision to share their story? What kind of support do they have? Students are definitely the expert of their own situation, so these might be good questions to go over with them but things to think about from a professional perspective.

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Fostering Success Michigan is a program of Educate Tomorrow that aims to increase access and success in higher education and post-college careers for youth with experience in foster care. Learn how you can contribute to building a holistic network that insulates (i.e., strengthens protective factors and reduces risks) the education to career "pipeline." 

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