Thomas W. Durso
Florida State University

There’s underserved, and then there’s underserved.

Foster kids. The homeless. Wards of the state. Young people as deserving of a college education as anyone, but victims of circumstances not of their making.

Florida State University in Tallahassee gives this often forgotten population a chance. In addition to offering a pathway to college, the Unconquered Scholars Program provides students with guidance, mentoring, advocacy and a voice. Along with considerable academic support, the program prepares students to live independently—perhaps for the first time in their life.

Which is what the students wanted.

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  • Fewer than 10 percent of students from foster care backgrounds will earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • Florida State administrators and students researched successful programs nationwide to develop a retention initiative that combined academic support, personal development resources and peer engagement.

“Our program was completely built from the students’ perspective,” says Tadarrayl Starke, director of the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, which oversees Unconquered Scholars. “That’s been the power and the uniqueness of the program, that it’s student-led as opposed to administratively led.”

The program is impressive in its scope, linking students to personal advising, life coaching, academic advising, financial aid assistance, tutoring, technology, mental health counseling, academic workshops and volunteer opportunities.

Students on a leadership board can support each other, mentor first-year scholars, and work with foster care students in middle and high school to promote college enrollment.

“It’s unique that we built it out to help youth transition even before they get to FSU,” says program coordinator Lisa Jackson. “From care to campus, we’re trying to smooth out the bumps in the road for them before they even get here.”

Since Unconquered Scholars was established in 2012, 91 percent of students in the program have been retained, with an average GPA of 3.01. But the program isn’t about only the grades. “This is a chance for them to be empowered and learn some great life skills that will help them live independently,” Jackson says.