Sophomore art education major Makalyn Christman gave a speech during the grand opening of the NextUp Center at Merced College back in early February.

She needed a gutcheck to do it. She was so nervous before facing the crowd, she turned to another NextUp participant for some support. The friend, who is religious, took her aside and prayed with her.

Two years ago, Christman would not have had a friend to turn to.

She has many now while studying for a transfer degree at Merced College as a participant in the NextUp Program, which supports foster youth.

“Knowing I have support from people who care, it means a lot,” Christman said.

The new office is located in the Student Union next to the Peter J. Gallo Veteran’s Resource Center, but NextUp has been around since 2018.

There are currently over 600 foster youth in Merced County who need safe homes. Of over 100,000 in the United States, between 32-45% will go to college, but only 10% will graduate.

Still college support programs for foster youth are on the rise. Recent studies show that graduation rate jumps to 65% when those students receive help.

“This is a program committed to focusing on the needs of foster youth,” said NextUp Student Services Coordinator Dondi Lawrence said. “NextUp students have the support of their peers and others who understand what they’re going through. It makes such a huge difference for them.”

Christman said her three years in foster care were difficult. But she had long clung to the idea she’d been taught: Education is the way to get out of poverty.

“I did whatever I could to make sure I got the education I needed,” said Christman, who attended Chowchilla High for two years and graduated from Merced High. “When I was younger and stuff was going on, I still made sure I got good grades.”

When Christman first started going to NextUp, she was relieved to hear they could help her financially and emotionally with attending college.

While Merced College has other student support programs with similar services, NextUp very specifically addresses the needs of foster youth, stuff people would never think about—gas. WiFi access, a friendly ear—but can stop foster youth cold in their pursuit of an education.

Foster youth may also lack something as simple as someone to ask how to fill out a form. They are doing it on their own with no social network of support. Thankfully, In California, foster youth don’t age out of the system until age 21. Programs like NextUp can fill those gaps.

“I read an article recently that talked about that very thing; they called it ‘family privilege.’” Lawrence said. “Many people take for granted the support and encouragement a family gives them when they go off to college. Even first generation students, whose parents never attended college, still have someone to say, ‘You can do this!’”

Merced College is lucky because it also has counselor Rene Salazar. Salazar has an M.S. in Educational Counseling and has been working with foster youth for over 26 years.

At NextUp, students receive help with books, gas and meals. They can print papers, use the computer lab or get help registering for classes. They can also get academic counseling, social support and access to the larger community through retreats, field trips, four-year college scouting trips and other events.

The NextUp program has served some 64 students since opening. Also, with additional grants and donations upwards to $23,000 in 2019-20, they’ve given out 20 laptops and 20 other participants have received help with WiFi expenses.

Every transaction serves a larger purpose; they also allow for valuable, emotional exchanges.

“One of the awesome aspects of the roles Rene and I play here is we get to be their cheerleaders,” Lawrence said. “We get to know our students, meet them where they are at, and support them in their college journey to achieve their goals. We collaborate with campus staff, local community partners, and other organizations to connect students to resources and services.”

Little hindrances can feel huge to these students. Taking care of their hearts and souls adds up for students who have been made to manage with so little. For example, Christman said she didn’t have friends in high school. She had a social worker who checked in.

When she arrived at the College, NextUp was open. And making friends got a whole lot easier.

“Whenever you come to the center, we’re all here, not for the same reasons, but you’ve been through something similar,” Christmas said. “It’s just easier to make friends when you know they went through something traumatic like you did.”

Christman endures. She wants to teach art. She has a goal and people to help her succeed.

Lawrence and Salazar also keep going, fueled by the students’ perseverance.

“The students are the motivators,” said Dondi Lawrence, the NextUp Student Support Coordinator. “The students are the heart of our program.”

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