Foster Youth Program fosters support for students


Ashley Loaeza

Mercedes Lezama, coordinator of START program, and students Toni Knox, Candice Grant, and Erica Hickey in the START office at Diablo Valley College on Thursday, April 13th, 2017.

Ashley Loaeza, Staff member

DVC is filled with a multitude of student programs that cater to a variety of people.

From international students to veterans, there is something for everyone. This includes the START program, which stands for Student Transition and Academic Retention Team.

START is a support group that caters specifically to current and former foster youth who have been in the foster care system starting at age 13.  

The program is designed to increase access to education, as well as retention and graduation rates. It aims to provide “a warm and welcoming environment, create a support network and empower foster youth students to make progress towards self-sufficiency, professional success and community leadership,” according to START’s website.

The program was founded in 2008, but due to lack of funding was not able to expand until 2015, when Mercedes Lezama took the position as the student services and structural support coordinator.

The program offers a number of services, such as financial, educational and emotional support.

According to, only 10 percent of former foster youth will attend college, and only 3 percent will graduate.

“There is a need for support. It’s not for a lack of trying or a lack of not knowing, it’s the unknown,” Lezama said. “College can be hard to navigate. You add on barriers that foster youth experience on top of that trauma and it becomes even more daunting. My hope is to create this environment that you know is welcoming, where somebody understands you and wants to listen and where we are here to cheer you on.”

The START program offers extensive support to its students in helping them reach their academic goal. This includes extended appointments with DVC academic advisers and personal meetings with Lezama twice a semester. Backpacks are also provided, complete with notebooks, pencils, scantrons and other necessary supplies.

Approximately 60 students are currently in the START program. Giovanna Cooper, a culinary arts major, has been with the program since its beginning. “Everybody needs support, but foster youth especially. It’s easy to get pushed through the system and become another page in the book. You don’t stand out or get much help. To have this kind of support and to feel like a real person is helpful and motivating,” she says.

START also offers opportunities for its students to build a safe space to meet other foster youth. Various events and opportunities such as support groups, college tours, movie days and trips are coordinated in hopes of building a tight-knit community.

“You make friends and you see that other people come from the same thing as you do and they share those experiences with you,” criminal justice major Candice Grant said.

START is located in the EOPS office at the Student Services Center. For more information contact Mercedes Lezama at 925-969-2203.