Tuesday, May 5, 2015

SLCC grad recalls life as foster child, how unique scholarship helped

Life started out pretty “normal” for Catherine Konold, born to a father who was a maintenance engineer at a hotel and a mother who worked at a florist shop on Saturdays. She’d eventually have a little brother. But by the time she was 5 or 6 years old – she can’t recall exactly – she began having problems with wandering. “I would wake up in the middle of the night, bored, and I would go everywhere,” Konold said. One morning, after wandering during the night, she greeted teachers at her elementary school at 6:30 a.m. “I was just bored,” she explained.

Catherine Konold

As she sits in a room at Salt Lake Community College’s South City Campus where she’s a student, Konold, now 23, talks about a life that slowly unraveled. Her mother suffered from severe depression. Konold began to develop “horrible” behavior problems. “I kept not behaving,” she said. “I was just very defiant.” The wandering turned to running away. When she was only 7 she was referred to a child psychology program at a facility in Provo. By 2001 she had been taken into state custody.

Konold said that, as a foster child from 2001-2010, she lived in 14 different homes in Utah, sometimes only for a few days while a foster parent went out of town. In one of those homes she recalls being beaten up by other children and then told by their mother, “You deserved it.” She visited a residential treatment center for mental health evaluations three times. Later in school she was separated into a children’s behavioral therapy unit. By about age 12 she started to “normalize,” more acutely aware that other children might think she was “weird” if she kept acting out, being defiant and running away. When she was 14 she did have to run away again, but only to escape an “emotionally abusive” foster parent. “I was very bitter,” she recalls.

But “bitter” does not describe who Konold is today. She eventually graduated from high school. In 2010 she started at SLCC and later enrolled elsewhere in an accelerated program to become a pharmacy technician. At some point through her state resources as a former foster child, Konold learned about the Olene S. Walker (former Utah governor) Transition to Adult Living (TAL) Scholarship. It was the ticket she needed to start again at SLCC, stumbling academically at first but hitting her stride by the 2015 Spring Semester. On Thursday she’ll don a cap and gown for Commencement, and then it’s on to Westminster College after taking a few more classes at SLCC this summer.

The privately funded scholarship program, in partnership with the Utah Educational Savings Plan and now in its seventh year, targets those transitioning out of state foster care and refugees who are unaccompanied minors who want a post-secondary education at a public college or university in Utah. Students who qualify and take a full load can receive up to $5,000 a year toward tuition, fees, books, supplies and living expenses. Applicants like Konold simply need to show that they have a “strong desire” to complete their college education. They also need to sign a student contract that binds them to eight requirements that cover GPA, regular meetings with teachers and an advisor and, something unique to SLCC, maintaining a working relationship with a mentor who is not doubling as the student’s advisor.

Konold’s mentor at SLCC is Kevin Rusch, a development officer for corporate relationships. She is Rusch’s third student whom he has mentored. “It’s been great,” he said. “All three have overcome a lot just to get to college.” And mentors’ roles go beyond the scope that an advisor might cover. Rusch, for example, talks to Konold several times a month, sometimes to help with logistical things that make life – and getting to class – more difficult. Konold wrecked her car once, and Rusch was a taxi for her when she had to do laundry.

“We don’t just assign an advisor to do it,” SLCC Interim Assistant Vice President for Student Planning and Support Curtis Larsen said about being a mentor. “We’re trying to make it about a lot more than that. We’re trying to make it about life skills, how to manage your money, what are you doing with this opportunity, how you hold yourself accountable to have good study skills.” He said the scholarship program has a proven track record of helping students like Konold succeed and improve their lives. “This is a program that can help them become better citizens and become productive, contributing members of society and taxpayers as opposed to leaning on the public doll,” he said.

Catherine Konold works out a math problem at South City Campus

These days Konold serves on two youth councils. She started a program three years ago that provides and fills stockings at Christmas for teens in foster care. When she speaks in front of other foster children, Konold tells them, “It’s really important to do what’s right for you. When I was 18, I didn’t really want college. Wait until you’re ready. The trick is in believing in yourself. The trick is to chase opportunities you don’t think you’re going to get. Chase that ‘something’. Step out of your comfort zone. Do things you didn’t see yourself doing before.”

Konold sees herself going into neuroscience someday, possibly working in a lab doing research. “I want to help people,” she said. First things first, though, she points out. A bachelor’s degree is her next goal. “I have to start small,” Konold said. “I’m lucky to even be here today.”