Fostering Hope and Success
Graduate Student Affairs Coordinator, BSW '90, MSW '93
Sharva Hampton-Campbell has created a dynamic program that is geared to meeting the needs of students who have gone through the foster care system.
The family-style, monthly dinner at the School of Social Work ended at 6:30 p.m., and nothing else was on the agenda. But two of her students stayed in her office and shared their hearts with her until 9 p.m.
That’s when Sharva Hampton-Campbell knew the program she had created for University of Illinois students who had been in foster care was working.
“They just kept talking, saying oh my gosh this is so amazing, we’re so glad you’re doing this, giving us this safe space. They shared about what they had gone through, their goals, their interests, their hobbies,” says Hampton-Campbell, graduate student affairs coordinator for the School of Social Work and director of The Village Project, the program she created and began this fall to improve learning equity for foster youth who are pursuing higher education.
“I’m using the ‘It takes a village’ model, pulling in as many people as possible to support these students so that their educational, social, and emotional needs are being met,” she says.
Those needs are made evident when comparing graduation rates. Nationally, 54 to 63 percent of non-foster youth graduate from college; only three to 11 percent of foster youth graduate.
“I really hope to meet the needs of each student that is currently in the program,” Hampton-Campbell says of the 11 or so students in The Village Project. “They can get overwhelmed. They come to campus and feel isolated and alone and don’t know how to navigate the system, so they end up not doing very well. Some of them are really smart but they’ve missed a lot.” She speaks of one student in the program who missed three years of schooling because his dad, who physically abused him, kept him home. “He did a summer bridge program to catch up, and now he’s here studying in a science field.”
Program’s Birth and Goals
The idea for The Village Project came to Hampton-Campbell when she met some social work students who had been through the foster care system. “I thought oh, I have some experience here. I think I can create some programming that would help these students,” she says.
Her experience includes fostering, along with her husband, close to 20 teenagers. “We’d have them for the long haul,” she explains. “One to two to three years. Our goal was to get them to a place of independent living, to understand how to live successfully on their own.”
Hampton-Campbell has two overarching goals with The Village Project. “My first goal is to find out the students’ needs and then connect them with resources here on campus and in the community to meet those needs,” she says. She names tutoring, disability resources services, and counseling and mental health services as some of the needs. At each monthly dinner, someone from a different resource unit—such as the Office of Minority Student Affairs or the University of Illinois Counseling Center—comes in and converses with the students about the resources available through their unit.
Her second goal is to grow the program to help more students. “I want to grow this program to where it’s in every state-funded school in Illinois,” she says. It’s already being implemented at Governors State University, where Hampton-Campbell earned her EdD in higher education administration. “Long-term, I want this to be a nationwide model.”
Connecting With Peers
Currently, the program is structured around the aforementioned monthly dinners, generously funded by an alumnus of the School, and monthly peer-led meetings.
“My research shows that students coming out of foster care feel isolated and alone on campus and don’t want to share their story with individuals who might not understand where they’re coming from,” Hampton-Campbell says. “To connect with peers who know what they’ve gone through really helps them emotionally.”
She plans to add a third prong to that two-pronged approach. “I want to start a host family program,” she explains. “I’ll be seeking individuals to provide care packages or to open up their homes to the students during holidays or breaks or be a resource for them if the need arises.” The students, she adds, are very excited about the idea of connecting with a host family. “They like the idea of a ‘speed-dating night’ with potential host families,” she says, chuckling.
Students From All Across Campus
Because foster care information about students is confidential, Hampton-Campbell has worked through the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to have students reach out to her about her program. “I had the luck of the draw in having a relationship with DCFS,” she says. “They agreed to pass on my program letter and flier to students along with a link so they could let me know that they were interested in participating.”
The students in the program come from all across campus: social work, business, engineering, art, writing. One is a master’s student; the others are undergraduates. “We’re open to any student who was in foster care, who was adopted through foster care, or who received guardianship through foster care,” Hampton-Campbell says. “They can enter the program at any time. If we’ve covered a need that they have, I’ll walk them through making the connections they need with that resource.”
Hampton-Campbell, who has authored or coauthored seven books, is overseeing an anthology in which the students will share their stories of being in foster care, making it to college, and working on their life goals. “This book will give them a voice and maybe help other youth who are in foster care gain hope from their stories of resilience and moving forward with their life goals, which include higher education,” she says. “And they will earn money from the book. They’re excited about that,” she adds, laughing. She envisions the book being published in late spring or early summer.
Hampton-Campbell says she has been given full support by Dean Steve Anderson, who worked with a similar program at Michigan State University. Several faculty have expressed interest in being part of the host family portion of the program. “When I share what I’m doing, people’s responses have been overwhelmingly positive, to the point where they’re trying to figure out how they can help and support this,” she says. “I’m very pleased with how things are going.”
The Village Project joins other programs on campus that identify students with needs, she says. “I’m hoping this will add to the offerings that as a campus we are extending to underrepresented students and students with needs beyond those of the average student,” Hampton-Campbell notes. “I want to get a seat at the table with the other units coming out of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, to be a voice for these students as decisions are being made and policies are being created. I want to make sure the needs of these students are heard.”
Student Resilience is Inspiring
When she began the program, Hampton-Campbell was hoping to inspire the students who had been through the foster care system. That has happened—but that inspiration has gone both ways.
“They’ve inspired me,” she says. “They’ve shared their stories and said they want to rise above their past, they want to be successful in life. They know they’ve had some emotional struggles but they believe they can do it. I’m almost in tears because of their resilience and strength.”
To learn more about The Village Project, and to support it in various ways, including by being part of the host family program, contact Hampton-Campbell at 217-300-3516 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.