“I faced a lot of challenges growing up and my parents could not take care of me. After losing my parents we stayed with my grandmother when I was 8 years old. This was my first legal guardianship,” says Aja Dunlap.
Born in Sacramento, California, Aja entered the foster system when she turned 13 years old. “Transitioning into foster care was hard because I had been to 12 different schools and moved a lot. I had to deal with a lot of changes in my teenage years. Going to Church really helped–I didn’t let my situation define me.”
While attending high school, she was in multiple placements in foster care. Despite the challenges she faced, she deeply valued her education. Graduating from high school was important to her.
Through participating in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, she developed the skills she needed to be successful in college. AVID helped her navigate the college application process and learn how to file for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “I felt school was a safe place and good environment that I was in. I am proud to be a first generation college student.”
Aja has been able to pursue higher education, while also advocating for foster youth and youth at the risk of becoming homeless. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, she helped write policy changes to California officials to protect the lives of foster youth.
“COVID-19 poses a special risk to children and youth in foster care, who are the legal dependents of the State of California,” the letter states. “While California’s response to COVID-19 is critical for all, children and youth in foster care uniquely rely on the public child welfare system to ensure their economic, emotional and educational well-being.”
Aja is now in her final year at California State University, Sacramento, pursuing a degree in criminal justice to ensure that other youth don’t fall through the cracks. The Guardian Scholars program has greatly helped her to stay on track. Looking to the future, she hopes to find a job in the criminal justice field.