College grant giving Minnesota students raised in foster system a life-changing chance

It's summer break at Macalester College in St. Paul, a time when up-and-coming college hopefuls can get a feel for "life on campus." But in its 148-year history, Macalester probably has never seen a tour group like this.

"When I was in high school, when I would watch people like going on tours and stuff with their parents or like when they would be like wearing their new hoodie on senior day, like of the college they got into," said Ryn. "I would always be really envious because I never thought that like that would be an opportunity that I would be able to have."

Ryn, 22, and Edson, 18, are fosters in Minnesota. They recently toured Macalester College. 

"Every household I've lived in, I've always had to take care of myself because they would be gone and there’s nothing to eat," said Edson. "So that's how I learn how to cook myself. I know you've just got to take care of yourself and that's how I, I guess, survived."

By all accounts, Ryn and Edson shouldn’t be here. Only about half of kids raised in foster care finish high school and only about 3% graduate from a four-year college.

"School was one of the only things that I ever felt like I had control over," Ryn said. "So I always did, like, not to sound like whatever, but I always did pretty good in school because that was like the one thing that nobody was able to take from me."

"I was thinking about college, obviously through high school, but like it wasn't really an option for me because I didn't have the money to pay for it," added Edson.

But in 2021, something happened that would change everything. Minnesota made an unprecedented investment in fosters with a multi-million dollar grant called Fostering Independence — all expenses paid for college.

"You know, we went from pretty much overnight a state that did almost nothing, the worst in the country for support to now there's not a single state that does more," said Murphy.

Hoang Murphy is the founder of Foster Advocates, the driving force behind that higher education grant. His nonprofit was born out of necessity and experience. Murphy was a child refugee from Vietnam and was raised for years in Minnesota’s foster system.

"To be honest, I never wanted to be the foster care guy just because I didn't want my life to be determined by something that happened to me and something I didn't feel like I really got to choose," said Murphy. "But I also saw that, you know, I knew a lot and experienced a lot that other folks needed."

Those voices, including Ryn's and Edson's, were powerful enough to defy the odds again, convincing the only split Legislature in the country, to come together.

"I think that there's often a lot of assumptions made that when you enter foster care, then you've been saved and that everything's going to work out and everything's fine. And that's just not true," explained Murphy.

"Life foster care can be a life-saving intervention," Murphy continues. "And it was for me. But that wasn't the end of the story. You know, I was eight when I entered foster care. There's 10 more years of life that we had to experience. There's a lot of challenges in those ten years. You know, we know how to save children, but we don't really know how to care for them as a state."

Some of that will change starting this fall when the Fostering Independence grant opens up to thousands of Minnesota fosters. Now it is up to the colleges and universities to open their doors.

"I mean, really, I would just challenge, folks, if you see a foster in your admissions pool, just know you're seeing a unicorn," said Murphy. "You're seeing somebody that should not have been able to make it that far, that they've gone past hurdles that are unimaginable to anyone else. And that's something that you should want on campus, that someone that you're somebody that you yourself and that your staff can learn from."

"I really want to go for public policy," said Ryn. "There's a lot of things I want to do, especially like with fosters, and also, like my own people back home."

"I was thinking about going into accounting," said Edson. "I don't know. Numbers come easy to me. I just want to put it to use before I lose it. Plus, I want to be a pilot too. I still want to get my pilot's license."

A few days after touring Macalester, Edson stepped into the cockpit of an airplane for the first time. Slowly adjusting to a new normal, one with hope and opportunity.

"I just want to fly in it right now," said Edson.

"Fosters are generally told that they have to have grit, they have to be tough, but other kids get to dream," said Murphy. "I want fosters to be able to dream too."