By Julie Peterson, CNN
(CNN) For the more than half a million kids in foster care in the United States, traumatic childhoods are often commonplace. With their home situations constantly changing, students in foster care frequently miss school, and academic growth can be handicapped. Two percent of foster care children go on to earn college degrees, according to the Atlanta-based nsoro Foundation .
But two University of Alabama seniors who faced similar difficult paths in the foster care system have defied the odds to become high achievers on theTuscaloosa, Alabama, campus.
Both Caroline James, 23, and Sean Hudson, 22, entered foster care at age 11. They each describe stories of serious abuse in the homes of their biological families.
Growing up, James helped raise her younger brothers because, she says, her mother abandoned them and their father went on drug binges for weeks at a time. With her teen years approaching, she decided that foster care was the answer for herself and her brothers. A turning point in her life came when the Booker T. Washington Magnet High School in Montgomery, Alabama, recruited her, she said. The school recognized her intellectual capabilities and potential, and college became a possibility.
James’ acceptance at the University of Alabama gave her a fresh start.
“As soon as I got to the University of Alabama, I did not want to discuss it,” she said. “I’m not going to be that kid that needs another handout. I’m sick of it.” James, who has a double major in social psychology and intercultural communications, is a member of the prestigious Mortar Board honor society. She said she intends to go to law school and then work for a nonprofit to help those who are struggling.
Hudson, a social work major with a 3.7 grade-point average, said his turning point came when a mentor showed him a path to his future. Social worker Alice Westery “saw me as a regular child,”Hudson said. “She helped me inspire change within me. (People in the foster care system) actually believed in me.”
With a large presence on theTuscaloosa campus,Hudson serves on several organizations’ boards and has earned multiple honors, including a Distinguished Scholar Award from the university. Like James, Hudson said he is aiming for law school. From there, he said he would like to work in advocacy and public policy.
Hudson has three jobs and has earned 10 scholarships, helping with the financial part of the college equation.
But James said financial struggles are only a piece of the challenge facing students from foster care. Stereotypes are another hurdle, she said.
“I think that many people perceive foster students to be purposefully underachievers. I think that what they’re missing out on is that oftentimes, foster kids don’t have the tools and furthermore, they don’t know what to do with them once they get them,” James said. “So even if you get a foster student into a college program, it doesn't mean that they're going to matriculate through that program properly because oftentimes during their developmental ages, they've actually been missing a lot of things.”
As these two standout scholars complete their degrees, they are knocking down these stereotypes and obstacles, displacing the notion that foster kids can’t earn a college diploma.
Follow Julie Peterson on Twitter @NewsJulie.