Lighting the Way to College for Homeless Youth

Nicole Lee-Mwandha

With new bedding and alarm clocks, 15 D.C. high school students experiencing homelessness went off to summer “bridge” programs at three different local universities in July — for free.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) used a $104,500 grant from BB&T Bank and OSSE funding to send each student to a 2-week stay at a college campus. BB&T funded one student at James Madison University and nine students at the University of Virginia. OSSE funded five more at American University.

Last year, BB&T Bank asked OSSE Homeless Education State Coordinator Nicole Lee-Mwandha about areas of need in D.C. for students experiencing homelessness. She stressed the importance of these students seeing the possibility of college in their futures. According to a 2016 report by GradNation, 60 percent of homeless youth say it was hard to stay in school while they were homeless, and 42 percent say they dropped out of school at least once.

“When families are faced with the day-to-day challenge of where they’re going to sleep, or where they’re going to clean their clothes and feed their children, then people don’t have the time or the energy to think about whether or not their child is going to go to college two years from now,” said Lee-Mwandha. It is important to show these children and their families, early on, that there are resources that can help them get to college, she said.

The summer bridge program aims to get these students thinking about important aspects of their futures.

Ashleigh Diserio, co-founder of Eyes Wide Open Mentoring, a program for students experiencing homelessness, sat down with a student to pick her interests and courses for the summer bridge program. “It forced the student to think about her future and her interests, and that’s something that never is really asked of these children. Even though it should be, it’s not.”

In addition to the opportunity to take classes such as forensic science and filmmaking or to go on field trips to places such as the Newseum, the students each received a care package from OSSE before they left. The care packages included college essentials such as toiletries, school supplies, an alarm clock, luggage, bedding and towels.

“I [was] just thinking, ‘thank god for OSSE because they anticipated what these kids were going to need, so they don’t stand out or have any need or feel different when they’re there.’ It’s just an amazing opportunity,” said Sharon Dennis, another Eyes Wide Open co-founder who accompanied one of their students to check-in at American University. She described other students arriving with mini fridges and large pieces of luggage, things that many students experiencing homelessness simply do not have.

Eyes Wide Open Mentoring has two students attending the summer bridge program. Diserio hopes that the students’ stories from this year will talk others into applying in the future.

“Our students don’t really ever get these opportunities,” said Diserio. “They live in houses that don’t have internet, they don’t have the funds to go to camp, they don’t even know about the opportunities a lot of the time, and so without this our students would just never get to go.”

In the fall, OSSE will use more of the BB&T grant to take homeless students on college tours and provide “College Starter Kits” that homeless students entering college can apply  to receive, which include a new laptop. “It fits right into BB&T’s mission of making the places we live in better places to be,” said Wendy Wingrove, the Vice President of BB&T.

Issues |Education|Youth

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.