Empowering Foster Youth in Higher Education

Sherri Raftery M.Ed.’04 Ed.D.’21 is piloting a program to provide foster youth with resources and support needed to pursue higher education.

Sherri Rafferty headshot in Boston Photo by Terry Slater
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Sometimes the best advocates for a social cause are those who have experienced similar conditions themselves. That is certainly the case for Sherri Raftery M.Ed.’04 Ed.D.’21, who is using her own experience as a foster child to inspire her current work to help provide mentoring and higher education assistance to foster youth in Massachusetts.

“I want to help more foster youth attend higher education institutions with access, retention, and graduation support,” says Raftery. “It is imperative that we help foster youth attend colleges, universities and some trade schools so that they gain opportunities to become self-sufficient. Higher education is a gateway to independence.”

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, only about half of youth raised in foster care end up finishing high school, and less than 3% graduate from a four-year college. This is because children in foster care are far more likely to change schools during the school year and to be in special education classes.

As Raftery explains, “If I move from one town to another, the curriculum doesn’t have to be the same, and then you’re not really up to standards with your non-foster youth peers. Oftentimes, we’re not thinking about school issues like spelling, I’m worried about where I’m going to live next. Each move brings a new school, new home, new family, new rules. Those are complete barriers because I’m not focused on school, I’m focused on basic necessities. COVID-19 exposed the world to what it’s like for foster youth by requiring everyone to adapt and pivot—that’s what it’s like for foster youth all the time. That’s a glimpse of what we deal with in our lives.”

Raftery’s research focuses on foster youth outcomes in education. She says 75% of foster youth want to attend college, but only 3% go, and only 1% complete a degree and graduate.

Supporting Foster Youth

Raftery’s passion for improving the lives of foster children comes from her own upbringing. “I am a former foster youth from the Home for Little Wanderers, a nonprofit that has been servicing children and families since 1799,” she says. “I was very fortunate—a staff member helped me apply to Salem State University and came with me to the interview. I have close relationships with those people from Salem State still. I believe that early intervention helped me make positive choices.”

Now, she is developing a Foster Youth to College pilot program, which aims to help meet the needs that foster youth have in order to become successful during their higher education experiences. According to Raftery, “We are already aware that helping foster youth with housing, financial assistance, academic assistance, mentoring, and other various needs can help increase their success. It’s important to be available to foster youth and to promote student engagement—students stay in college when they’re invested in their college.”

The goal is to develop a support system similar to what Endicott College offers for veterans. Having services offered specifically for foster youth allows them to feel more comfortable reaching out to take advantage of those services, says Raftery. “Some of this is already being done on other campuses. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re looking at what they’re doing so we can replicate it. We want to tap into those programs and help set up resources in our little corner; maybe we can find a formula that we can use statewide and nationwide.”

The pilot program is still in beginning stages, meeting once per month with co-founders Reverend Dr. Gail Cantor, Endicott’s Interfaith Chaplain and Co-chair of the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Taskforce; fellow doctoral candidate Maureen McLaughlin '22; and President of Endicott Alumni Council and former foster parent Susan Dowling '72. Raftery says they are looking for others to get involved.

“In the child welfare system, they’re just looking for kids to age out of the system, they’re not preparing them for college,” says Raftery. “If we tap into foster youth with early interventions—maybe even junior high—they can attend college and become more financially independent and contribute to society and give back.”

“As I walk across Endicott College's meticulously groomed campus, I cry tears of joy for being part of the less than 1% of foster youth matriculating in a doctoral educational leadership program. But then I cry tears of sorrow thinking…where is the other 99% of us [foster youth]? This is why it is imperative to increase access, retention, and graduation rates for foster youth undergraduates so they too can become graduate students.”—Sherri Raftery, M.Ed.’04 Ed.D.’21

A Proud Gull

A graduate of Emerson College in 1990 and Endicott's Van Loan School in 2004 (with a Master in Education), Raftery is currently pursuing her doctorate at Endicott in educational leadership with an expected graduation in December of this year. She is really enjoying her work on her dissertation "Foster Youth Mentorship Programs in Higher Education," which she expects to complete by the end of this summer.

Raftery credits the amazing faculty at Endicott for the opportunity to join the doctoral program. After graduating with an M.Ed. with a concentration in Arts & Learning in 2004, she was eager to enter the doctoral program but daunted by the application requirements. Her own experience mirrors one of the most common challenges for foster youth—barriers like standardized tests or the bandwidth to create and submit applications.

She says, “One barrier that was removed for me was that Endicott required taking a certain test, but did not require a specific test score. That was great because taking tests are very difficult for me. It’s important to have those barriers removed—if you want more foster youth in your programs you have to make it accessible.”

Raftery’s effusive praise of the folks who helped her get through this doctoral program is abundant. In addition to the faculty, staff, dissertation committee, and fellow doctoral candidates, she thanks Endicott’s Tutoring & Writing Center for improving her research writings. “I write and research my work, but they help me clarify it, use APA format, fix Oxford commas and hanging indents, and help me organize and manage data,” she says. “I could not have done this if I didn’t have that Center, having their help was such a relief.”

Raftery has been an adjunct professor at North Shore Community College since 2016, and serves on the Endicott College Alumni Council. She is a member of Toastmasters and works with prison inmates on public speaking and leadership skills.

“Education leadership opens up doors—I could become a dean,” says Raftery. “It’s really a great journey that I had the opportunity to experience, and I want more of us to be able to have that experience. I want to be happy and proud of other foster youth while they go to college, graduate, have careers, and be independent. I’m trying to pay it forward.”