Clarissa Epps did not have a straight path to college. She spent her youth in a series of foster homes, and for a few years after high school worked in fast food. But she eventually found her way to Wake Technical Community College – and Michelle Blackmon.
Blackmon leads Wake Tech’s Fostering Bright Futures program, which helps some of the county’s most vulnerable college students, many of whom aged out of foster care at 18 with no family to help them make the next step. The program helps students financially, but also provides emotional support and guidance through the many small catastrophes that can derail their hopes to earn college degrees.
“She’s like our school mom who does anything and everything for us,” says Epps, 23, who graduated Saturday with an associate’s degree. “She’s taught us everything from proper etiquette to managing time and money to cooking Thanksgiving dinner. She’s there anytime we need her.”
Fostering Bright Futures, funded through the Wake Tech Foundation, is the state’s only support program focused on students who have aged out of foster care – a particularly vulnerable group.
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Only about 6 percent of former foster children will earn a 2- or 4-year degree by the age of 24, according to a 2010 University of Chicago study – though some advocacy groups peg that percentage even lower. Half are unemployed at the age of 24, and one in five will become homeless.
Blackmon is fighting against these numbers. That means weekly one-on-one meetings with more than a dozen students at several Wake Tech campuses. It means working with mentors who also support students as they deal with roadblocks to their success, such as domestic abuse or unreliable transportation.
She devised and runs a program that gives students financial incentives for their grades and class attendance. She’s also forged partnerships with community organizations that help students with housing, mental health and other issues.
This year, she’s focused on helping students interact with one another and the community through a wide range of events, including a Christmas party this week and a Thanksgiving event where they cooked and shared a meal provided by Butterball at their headquarters.
Youths have the option of remaining in foster care through the age of 21, but Blackmon says most are eager to become independent after years of shuffling from home to home. But unlike most high school graduates, they have no safety net.
“They don’t have adults they can go back to, so that’s where we come in,” says Blackmon. “They’re looking for that support, the motivation and encouragement to keep them going.
Blackmon grew up in Lumberton and came to Raleigh when she married her childhood sweetheart.
In Raleigh, she attended Meredith College, where she earned a degree in sociology and elementary education. She later earned a master’s in education as well, though she says she was always a social worker at heart.
She started working at Wake Tech in 1997, in the registrar’s office, and has held several jobs since. She was working as a counselor when then-County Commissioner Kenneth Gardner started working out plans for a program to help foster children.
Blackmon says the the job is a natural fit. The program started as a pilot with five students that she would take some extra time to work with on top of her advising duties. Those students started getting better grades, so they worked on expanding the program’s reach.
While the program has evolved over the years, her priority is to give students one place where they can find answers to all of their questions, from financial aid to transportation to tutoring.
“It’s one-stop advising, mentoring,” she says. “You name it, that’s what we do.”
Students apply for the program. They all work, most full time, in addition to taking at least nine hours of classes. Each is assigned a mentor, though Blackmon remains their point person, traveling to each campus, their homes or work to help however she’s needed.
“Wherever my students go, that’s where I go,” says Blackmon.
Sometimes her role has an almost investigative slant, particularly when students seemingly disappear. She’s sought them out at their homes, their work, through calls and texts to family members and boyfriends.
Usually, she finds they are too embarrassed about their problems to come to her.
“They don’t want to bother me, so they go MIA,” she says.
So far seven students have graduated, with five going on to universities and two working in their fields. Epps, the eighth, plans to attend N.C. Central University.
Turning to incentives
The students receive Pell grants to cover their tuition, but usually must work to pay their expenses. If they start to earn poor grades or miss classes, they can lose their federal funding.
If need be, Blackmon says, her program can help pay their tuition. The program gives each student a donated laptop, cellphone and monthly cellphone stipend.
But over time Blackmon says the program has come to rely heavily on incentives, essentially paying students to attend classes and earn good grades. Early on, she says, the biggest problem she found was student attendance.
Now, instructors give her a mid-term report; students who miss no classes and earn an A receive $100, and those with a B receive $50. The incentives apply again at the end of the semester, and are doubled for students who have met all qualifications.
Since she instituted the “Learn and Earn” program in 2010, the average GPA of her students has risen from .09 to 2.5. She also works with them on creating savings accounts and other financial issues.
“This is a way for them to make money and save money,” she says. “When they start to see that account grow, it will motivate them.”
All students take a study skills course, which Blackmon sometimes teaches, and are trained in managing their time using calendars and lists.
In recent years, she’s also expanded the group’s partnerships and events. They work closely with Wake County Health and Human Services, which refers students to the program and provides training for mentors and other support. The Hope Center at Pullen assists students in finding places to live as they attend classes.
She has brought in speakers, such as former NFL player Marquez Ogden who spoke to students about his experience becoming a millionaire and then losing his fortune.
The Thanksgiving meal arose after she realized last year that many students weren’t really celebrating the holiday.
“I said then that I didn’t want another holiday to go by when I was enjoying spending time with my family and they weren’t enjoying themselves,” Blackmon says.
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Born: March 1970, Lumberton
Career: Coordinator, Fostering Bright Futures, Wake Technical Community College
Awards: Education and Enrichment Award, N.C. Black Women’s Empowerment Network, 2016
Education: B.A. sociology and elementary education, Meredith College; M.Ed. American InterContinental University
Family: Husband Deon and son Dyson