Thursday, November 11, 2010

The option to boomerang?

As IOFA continues its work to help transition youth from orphanage care, we are asking important, difficult questions about the factors influencing successful transitions to adulthood. IOFA is in the process of designing “The Transitions Project”, a multi-faceted and sustainable support project for young people from this highly vulnerable population. The following entry is the first in a series of discussions about methods of intervention and the best ways we can help our youth transition safely.
Today’s topic: Does a college degree mean independence?

Google “boomerang kids” and see what comes up: articles titled, “Hi mom…I’m back!” and “Why grown kids come home,” fill the page. The term describes the ever-growing population of young adults who return to their parents for housing; Twentysomething Inc, a research firm in Philadelphia, tells us 85% of college graduates move back to their parents’ after graduation. Many fingers point to the economy and sky-high rent prices, to insurmountable debt incurred by rising tuition costs.
It’s interesting, then, that the world seems to view a college education as the ultimate step toward independence. If any efforts are poured into helping youth to transition from child welfare systems, college admission is typically at the forefront of programmatic goals. This is particularly noticeable in developing countries with a large Western NGO presence. Is this because university admission is a concrete, measurable success? “Independent living skills” are far more vague and difficult to identify than an acceptance letter or a transcript.
While many champion the need for college, some child welfare groups in Cambodia express frustration that university admission is the primary target for Western-funded orphanages. Kids often enter care with nutritional deficits, many years behind in school, or with traumatic life experiences, and they often face substantial education delays. Entering an environment where college attendance is touted may be inspiring for some, but unrealistic and damaging for others – particularly if the resources for tuition are not dependable. In one orphanage I interviewed in a rural Cambodian province, youth aged 17 were in primary school, were poised to leave orphanage care in one year, and had no plans for future independent living except for medical or law school. The same orphanage reports its graduated youth to have experienced dire fates: labor trafficking, forced marriage, gang enrollment.
Should we strive to make university available to our most vulnerable youth? Of course. Should it be the crux of a plan for independence? Just as university does not equate to independent adulthood in the U.S., we need to consider other ways that will promote safe, happy, and healthy independence. Most youth leaving child welfare systems just don’t have the option to be “boomerang kids.”

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