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David Billhimer, 18, poses for a portrait on the Midlothian, Virginia, campus of Brightpoint Community College, where he is pursuing an associate degree in business.. He is also enrolled in Great Expectations, a program that helps students who have aged out of foster care succeed in college. David has a keen interest in baking, and dreams of operating his own bakery business one day.

‘It’s Become My Family’: A Foster Child Finds a Home at College

About This Project

This photo essay is part of a yearlong Chronicle visual series that highlights the challenges facing first-generation students and others. The series is part of the Different Voices of Student Success project, which is supported by the Ascendium Education Group.

The photo essay was created by Michael Theis, associate photo and media editor, with narrative by Michael Anft and edited by Maura Mahoney, senior editor. Erica Lusk, senior photo and media editor, edited the photographs. Carmen Mendoza, senior web producer, and Luna Laliberte, editorial-events coordinator, coordinated interviews.

David Billhimer’s tumultuous childhood made him a nomad.

Neglected by parents mired in substance abuse, Billhimer was removed by a court from his Virginia home at age five. Over the next 11 years, he shuttled between various foster families, his grandparents, a group home, and a residential facility for children under extreme stress.

David Billhimer displays mementos that make him think of happier times in childhood. They includ salt shakers, an equestrian figurine, and medals earned by his grandfather, as well as a hatbox owned by his grandmother.
Billhimer keeps his mementos in a hatbox that was owned by his grandmother.

While he often stayed with what he calls “good people,” he was inevitably forced to move on. The traumas he endured include witnessing family violence — and sometimes being a victim of it. Such experiences soon began manifesting as behavioral problems. He was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism.

Items from a box of mementos that David says remind him of the happier times in an otherwise unhappy childhood. From left: A souvenir ring from Virginia Beach given to him by his grandparents, salt and pepper ceramic shakers in the shapes of fish and chefs, and an horse figurine.
Items from Billhimer’s box of mementos that remind him of happier times in an otherwise unhappy childhood. From top left: A souvenir ring from Virginia Beach given to him by his grandparents, salt and pepper ceramic shakers in the shape of fish and chefs, and a horse figurine.

Billhimer hopscotched through more than 10 schools during his journey. Among his memories are a nervous breakdown he suffered on a football field in middle school.

“When you’re 14 or 15 and you’re moving into a house with a new family, it’s hard,” he says. “In school, I’d make friends, and then I’d have to leave. I always had problems with social interactions. It became harder and harder to make new friends at each stop.”

A Chance to Keep Growing

Though he struggled with his afflictions and social adjustment — “I was always that 50/50 student who may not make it through school,” he says — he was on target to graduate at age 16. Before his senior year, Billhimer was forced to move into a new foster home and attend a new high school. There, his academic potential caught the attention of a guidance counselor who encouraged him to attend college and explained that his status as a low-income youth in foster care made him eligible for financial aid.

Though he wondered if he should take such a bold step at a time when he, like most children his age in foster care, would soon need to think about taking care of himself, Billhimer enrolled at Brightpoint Community College, which has campuses in Chester and Midlothian, Va., near Richmond, two years ago.

David Billhimer walks across the campus of Brightpoint College in Midlothian to his car on Feb. 15, 2024.
Students raised in foster care face a unique set of challenges as they transition from a childhood in the system to independent adulthood. For those who wish to pursue a higher education, the challenges can be even greater.

At Brightpoint, with the help of a support system that targets students with foster-care backgrounds who attend Virginia’s 23 community colleges, Billhimer, now 18, has found something closer to a family of his own.

His longtime social worker told him of a program that offers help with academics and life coaching to college students who have aged out of foster care (which typically occurs at age 18). Called Great Expectations, as a nod to Charles Dickens, the chronicler of dispossessed children, the program has helped Billhimer achieve something he has long wished for: a chance to keep growing, and in one place.

A Strong Need for More Support

Great Expectations relies on life coaches, mentors, and tutors to support each student who enrolls in its program, to make the student’s transition to self-sufficiency easier. Funded by grants from the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education and smaller outlays from the state, it also offers emergency rent-payment help to some students.

According to Rachel Mayes Strawn, a director of Great Expectations, the program has served 4,000 students statewide since it was founded in 2008. In recent years, it has helped 600 annually. The need to do more to support underprivileged youth from fractured backgrounds led to the program’s formation.

On Feb. 12, 2023, David Billhimer meets with Great Expectations Program Coordinator Elizabeth McKey to discuss upcoming events in his life, including an interview with local United Way to be an intern.
Great Expectations provides housing, financial and academic assistance, and mentoring to students who have aged out of the foster-care system. The program is available to former foster youth at every community college in the Virginia Community College system. In this photo, brochures and photos from the Great Expectations program hang on the office wall of Elizabeth McKey, the program’s coordinator at Brightpoint Community College.

Studies have found that only three to four percent of former foster youth have earned a four-year college degree. The reasons so few do are many, including finances. Many foster youth must support themselves once they turn 18. Having to work multiple jobs can drain their energy and time, making college completion a tougher task than it is for other students.

“Young people who have experienced foster care don’t have families who can back them up,” says Strawn.

What’s more, they age out of foster care at an age when many are ill-prepared to succeed. “Studies show that the prefrontal cortex that governs many aspects of adult behavior isn’t fully developed until age 25,” Strawn says. “Many of our students come from backgrounds with trauma as well. There’s a lot of evidence that shows they need a lot of support.”

More Programs for Foster-Care Students

Nationwide, former foster-care youth are suffering. About half of people experiencing homelessness were once in foster care. A 2022 study found that 70 percent of youth who exited foster care as legal adults were arrested at least once by age 26, and one-fifth of the U.S. prison population is composed of former foster children.

While over 70 percent of older youth in foster care want to go to college, they enroll at less than half the rate of their peers. Most who do attend college don’t make it beyond their first year, according to research from the Foster Care to College project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research.

David Billhimer settles in to watch the 2023 animated comedy, <i>Migration</i>.
Billhimer settles in to watch the 2023 animated comedy Migration.

Coalitions have sprung up in recent years to improve the lot of former foster-care youth, including one called Fostering Academic Achievement Nationwide, an advisory group with 22 member organizations across 18 states. The FAAN network works to bridge gaps between higher-ed institutions and foster-care youth.

There’s a growing recognition of foster youth’s struggles across the country, Strawn says.

Getting Through a Tough Time

Programs like Great Expectations can serve as a national model, she adds. Nearly 1,000 students have been awarded a total of 1,900 degrees or certificates since its founding. Students graduate at double the rate (16 percent versus eight percent) of foster-care college students elsewhere nationally.

The program’s coaches routinely meet early on with a participant or prospective student to discuss a major or overarching academic path, guide them through financial-aid forms, and inform them of scholarships and other campus programs.

Once Great Expectations participants start their coursework, their classroom performance is monitored by professors and instructors. A reporting system allows faculty members to inform the program if a student is falling behind or hasn’t been attending classes.

On Feb. 13, 2024, David Billhimer attends a philosophy class taught by Samantha Emswiler.
Billhimer attends a philosophy class taught by Samantha Emswiler, an assistant professor at Brightpoint.

During his freshman year, Billhimer’s name popped up in that system frequently. Even though he and the other 84 program participants at Brightpoint Community College can avail themselves of 25 Great Expectations volunteer mentors — most of them faculty or staff members — and six paid tutors, Billhimer struggled.

His first semester “was trash,” he says. Working four jobs to prepare himself for imminent adult independence took up much of his attention, and he passed only one class.

“I never really took advantage of the tutoring,” Billhimer says. “I’m still learning how to accept help. It’s hard for me to take help from anyone outside my family. But of course, I really haven’t had a family, so that makes things harder.”

David Billhimer participates in a biology lab on Feb. 14, 2024.
Billhimer peers through a microscope in a biology lab.

The stress of juggling classwork and jobs triggered his bipolar condition. He found himself “cussing out” the foster parents with whom he spent his freshman year, Billhimer says.

Elizabeth McKey, his life coach at Great Expectations and the program’s coordinator at Brightpoint, helped him find ways to manage with just one job as a pizza-delivery driver. She encouraged him to ask for extensions on assignments and gave him tips on time management. A lighter work schedule during his second semester resulted in a marked improvement in Billhimer’s grades.

A Personal Touch

Such examples show how Great Expectations can deliver something more than basic academic support. By offering advice and a ready ear, its coaches can deliver intangibles to students, including a warm and welcoming environment — something Billhimer noticed as soon as he met McKey.

“The first thing I was asked when I walked in her office was, ‘Do you want any snacks? Are you thirsty?’” he says. “The whole environment was very calming. I felt like I could relax.”

McKey keeps food cards, gas cards, drinks, and snacks in her office to help students get past some basic issues of living so they can concentrate more on their studies. When Billhimer’s well-traveled (with 167,000 miles) Chevy Cruze broke down, preventing him from getting to his current job as a hospital security guard, McKey handed him an Uber card and arranged with a local parts store to replace his dead battery.

On Feb. 12, 2023, David Billhimer meets with Great Expectations Program Coordinator Elizabeth McKey to discuss upcoming events in his life, including an interview with local United Way to be an intern.
Billhimer meets with his Great Expectations life coach, Elizabeth McKey, to discuss upcoming events in his life, including an interview for an internship with the local United Way. McKey helps Billhimer with academic matters and counsels him on possible career paths, assisting with challenges he faces in his daily life.

The way help is offered means a lot, Billhimer adds. Such support can give students who may lack confidence and trust reasons to continue on with their education.

“When I first met David, he was young for college — 17,” McKey recalls. “My first impression was he was eager to start college, and that he’d do well if he could just lean on someone. David hadn’t had a lot of stability, but he was very positive. He was someone who always wanted to be a good helper and who wanted to find a community.”

‘Building a Community’

At Brightpoint, McKey organizes monthly get-togethers for Great Expectations students. They have had lunch with Brightpoint’s president, toured a bakery, assembled bags of food and other items for the college’s younger foster students, and attended lectures on budgeting, cooking, stress reduction, and time management. The night before each Thanksgiving, the group travels to a nearby Cracker Barrel for a turkey-and-stuffing dinner.

On Feb. 12, 2023, David Billhimer meets with Great Expectations Program Coordinator Elizabeth McKey to discuss upcoming events in his life, including an interview with local United Way to be an intern.
On a stationery pad bearing Brightpoint’s former name, Billhimer takes notes as he chats with McKey about his upcoming interview with a local United Way.

Such bonding activities help create a safe space for people who have long been denied one — and a community based on a common past and a dreamed-for future.

“They’re building a support system while they’re in college,” says McKey. “A lot of them have never had that. They haven’t had the opportunity to build trust in groups of people.”

‘My Main Mom’

Billhimer says that, along with his most recent foster parents and his biological grandparents, McKey and several Great Expectations students have “become my family.” In his estimation, McKey goes well beyond the role of college mentor and life coach. In February, she helped Billhimer secure an internship at a local United Way agency, tossing in a stipend paid for by the community-college foundation. She gives him suggestions on how to navigate bumps in the road, such as that painful first semester. And her office door is always open.

On Feb. 13, 2024, David Billhimer meets with Tiffani Beissel ,volunteer. manager at the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg, to discuss an internship with the charity. The interview was facilitated by Great Expectations Program Coordinator Elizabeth McKey, who also attended and helped moderate the discussion between Billhimer and Beissel. Beissel herself is a graduate of the Great Expectations program.
Tiffani Beissel, a volunteer manager at the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg, discusses an internship at the nonprofit with Billhimer and McKey. McKey organized the interview and helped moderate the discussion. Beissel is a graduate of the Great Expectations program.

“She’s my back brace,” Billhimer says. “I call her my main Mom.”

He tries to give back by evangelizing for the program at local high schools and regularly keeping in touch with other students in the program by email. McKey “calls me her intern, but really I’m the program’s ambassador. It’s my job to let people like me know that this is here for them,” he says.

Now a sophomore, Billhimer says his mind-set has shifted since that rough introduction to college life. He finds himself looking ahead. “I think about the future all the time,” he says. “I’m thinking of a new car, a new apartment when I turn 21.” He also hopes to open a bakery/coffeehouse on his own after he graduates with an associate degree in business.

He’ll name the place Joan’s Bakery, in homage to his great-grandmother, who taught him some baking tricks when he was very young. “It’ll be the kind of place people come not just for the food, but for a nice environment,” he says.

David Billhimer goes shopping at Wal Mart in Henrico County, Virginia on Feb. 15, 2024. Among the items he buys are cinnamon for a cinnamon butter he is making for a cake he plans to bake.
Billhimer shops at a Walmart in Virginia. On his shopping list: cinnamon, for a cake he plans to bake.

If all goes well, he’ll eventually transfer to and earn a bachelor’s degree from James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va. — the town where he was born. But until then, he’ll work to expand the circle of people like him who choose to attend college. His roommate, a foster youth in high school, could benefit from the same support Billhimer has enjoyed.

“I keep telling him that college is great and that there are people here who could help him out,” he says. “The program is super-welcoming. It makes you believe you can do what you need to do.”

David Billhimer is seen driving his car for errands after classes on Feb. 15, 2024.
Outside of campus, Billhimer lives independently with a roommate in an apartment owned by the foster-care system. He drives his own car.