College Bound at Covenant House Georgia
Covenant House Georgia is raising expectations and lowering barriers for young people overcoming homelessness through its Pathways Leading to Undergraduate Studies (PLUS), an innovative learning program that in the last year has helped 20 youth fulfill their aspirations for higher education.
Another 16 young people are currently enrolled in PLUS and looking forward to being college bound.
“Why shouldn’t our youth go to college or university?” asks Regina Jennings, director of support services at Covenant House Georgia (CHGA). “The real barrier to their success is low expectations. Every young person I’ve ever met at Covenant House, when we raise expectations, they meet them.”
She’s talking about young people like Sahri, now a freshman at Clayton State University and majoring in criminal justice. “I had to work hard to get where I am today,” Sahri says. “Growing up, because I moved around a lot, I experienced a lot of instability. Can you believe I attended seven different high schools?”
Sahri was a high school senior when she experienced her first bout of homelessness. “I moved in with my boyfriend, but he quickly became physically, verbally, and sexually abusive. I didn’t know where to turn, but then I found Covenant House Georgia.”
At CHGA, she says, she found “a safe place to sleep, food to eat, and a team of staff who helped me turn my dream of attending college into a reality.”
Living on the streets or in unstable conditions, young people are necessarily consumed with life-or-death matters like when or whether they will eat, where they will sleep, and how they will stay safe. Higher education becomes a dream deferred, but not a dream abandoned.
That’s important because last year, according to reports, the earnings gap between those who had a college degree and those who didn’t had become wider than ever in U.S. history. A post-secondary education makes a difference to young people who are overcoming homelessness and seeking to build a sustainable life.
Reclaiming the College Dream
PLUS is designed especially for youth who obtained a high school diploma or GED before homelessness lumbered into their lives. It begins with CHGA’s Learning Communities, where learning is embraced as “an all-day, every-day, lifelong endeavor — for all of us,” Regina shares.
Because the trauma youth experience while homeless may impact the way they relate to the classroom, Learning Communities offers them an interactive learning environment, college and cultural tours, and a classroom full of dynamic, topical, and relevant discussion. It’s an “educational bridge,” Regina explains, by which youth gain confidence and reclaim their aspirations for higher learning.
PLUS exposes CHGA youth to all that college has to offer. Each year, CHGA holds two college fairs, where representatives from Georgia colleges offer information about their institutions’ fields of study and activities. There are break-out sessions about college life, being on campus, financial aid, and other topics. During the fairs, CHGA staff wear their college jerseys and share with the youth about their alma maters and majors.
PLUS also helps the young people research how to fund their studies, and links them to scholarships like those made available by Hillside International Truth Center, an Atlanta partner.
“It’s been a real journey to move the conversation from high school and GED to college. Most youth don’t come in asking about college. It’s a classic case of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Regina says. “We understand that college isn’t for everyone, but we want our youth to know that their homelessness doesn’t have to impact their ability to go to college.”
Michaila was one youth who came to Covenant House Georgia seeking refuge. As a child, she’d had a passionate interest in theater. But her situation at home was strained and unstable, and she decided to leave. CHGA, she says, “got me from a troubled home to a nice space, where you can clear your mind.”
She finished high school, and, thanks to PLUS, Michaila is now a freshman at Atlanta Metropolitan College — with a double major in theater and social work. “I can’t believe my childhood dream is coming true, and it wouldn’t have been possible without my Covenant House family!” she exclaims.
For Regina, it’s no surprise that a young person who was once homeless embarks on a college career. “When we stop thinking of our youth in terms of their deficits and, instead, think of all that they can be and do, it’s not surprising at all,” she says.