While some independent students age out of foster care, others can be emancipated minors or classified as homeless. Most are financially responsible for themselves and do not receive the family support a majority of students find comfort in. This story is one of a three-part series aiming to bring attention to the independent student experience.
Physics freshman Madison Round first became aware of her unconventional family situation during a Donuts with Dad event in elementary school. While most children brought their fathers to class, Round would not meet her father until she was 10 years old.
“It was hard with a single parent, and my mom was not a good single parent,” Round said. “To put it lightly, she struggled a lot.”
Before college, Round attended 21 different schools, lived in multiple foster homes and was removed from the custody of first her mother and then her father. Today, Round’s home base is with her paternal grandparents. She said they are a much-needed source of support, but she often feels as if she is still navigating college alone.
“I think it’s a struggle in itself to not have two parents,” Round said. “But not having two parents who are absolutely supportive and have already [attended college] is the real problem.”
Round’s parents divorced shortly after she was born. Afterward, Child Protective Services sporadically placed her in foster care throughout her infancy. Round said living with her mother was a “rollercoaster.” When she was 10 years old, the police took her away from her mother for the final time due to an inadequate and neglectful living situation. It was then she met her father, an Army Ranger who had been serving in the military, for the first time. She was put into his custody just a few weeks before her mother died in 2009.
She said she was excited to move from Idaho to Texas to live with her father because he was married at the time to a woman who became her “new mother.” Still, the thought of having a dad seemed foreign.
“He had seen me as a baby, but I did not know who he was,” Round said. “As a little girl going to meet him, everyone was saying to me, ‘Okay you’re supposed to love this person.’ You’re just supposed to believe that from the get-go. That was tough.”
After six years, a court ruled Round’s father to be unfit to raise her due to personal struggles. Round was then relocated to another foster home shortly before getting adopted by her grandparents at the age of 16.
Round said she fits the FAFSA criterion for being an independent student because she was in foster care after the age of 13, but the courts advised her not to emancipate herself from her grandparents because she was almost 18.
“They basically said, ‘You can struggle for a couple of months in college, it’ll be okay,’” Round said.
Because Round skipped seventh grade, she entered college at 17. Since she is not emancipated and is under 18, she has experienced significant issues. During her first week on campus, Round cut her leg shaving and could not speak to a nurse on the 24-hour hotline or seek any medical attention until her grandfather called the University Health Center and took her to a hospital.
“It’s cumbersome for him to have to drive an hour to UT to take care of his granddaughter, who’s in college, who’s perfectly capable, just because of the paperwork,” Round said.
But the main issue Round faces is money. Her tuition is covered under FAFSA, but her mother’s social security is her only way to pay for housing. Her grandparents support her, but Round is left with little to no money for outside food or incidentals.
“If people want to go shopping or go out to get $12 dinners, I just laugh and say ‘I’ll pass,’” Round said.
She feels as if she’s in a “better boat” than those who remained cycling through the foster care system. She said her life experiences have pushed her to want more for her
“This has all affected me positively,” Round said. “I want to have children who grow up to be like the people I walk the [UT] halls with.”