UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Although foster youth can face many challenges, those who continue into college are better prepared for adulthood and more likely to achieve economic independence and an improved quality of life. For the first time ever, a program designed to support foster youth at Penn State was recently awarded a scholarship which will enable the program to expand services for undergraduate foster students at Penn State.
Created with a gift of $53,000 from Denise (Shuey) Rohrbach, a 1975 graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts, the Rohrbach/Shuey Family Scholarship will provide support to students with unforeseen situations including tuition, housing, food, clothing and transportation.
“This award will help students with needs that tuition waivers and other scholarships don’t cover,” said Cheri McConnell, Fostering Lions coach and education coordinator of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. “Scholarships like this one make the difference in emergency situations that could prevent a student from attending class. We are grateful to Denise Rohrbach for leading the way in creating Penn State’s first scholarship for foster youth.”
The Fostering Lions Program was launched in 2018 and has been an indispensable resource for more than 45 undergraduate students at campuses across the commonwealth, said Jennie Noll, director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. “By decreasing risk factors through the support services network, the Fostering Lion’s goal is to increase the students’ educational outcomes,” said Noll. “Higher educational attainment can prepare foster youth lifelong successes.”
Rohrbach said she was inspired to establish a scholarship to support the Fostering Lions after learning about the program. During an internship while pursuing an undergraduate degree in social welfare, Rohrbach met a foster student who could play the piano by ear incredibly well. “I spent a lot of time trying to find someone to provide free lessons for the young girl, and the memory of working with her stuck with me,” said Rohrbach. “That experience inspired me to philanthropically support students in the Fostering Lions Program.”
Denise is not the only Penn Stater in her family. Her husband, Bob Rohrbach, a 1974 College of the Liberal Arts graduate, was also in the Air Force ROTC program, and the couple’s children — Brian, who graduated from the Smeal College of Business in 2001, and Jennifer, who graduated from the College of the Liberal Arts in 2004 — are also Penn State alumni.
The Fostering Lions Program partners with county agencies that work with foster youth to identify potential students who are interested in attending Penn State. Students can also enter the program by being referred by advisers, or by indicating they had previously been in the foster system as part of the New Student Orientation process.
“Whenever I go out and talk to foster youth, there are always some who say to me, ‘I didn’t think I could go to college,’” said McConnell. “There are a lot of social and life skills many of these youth simply don’t have or are weak at.”
McConnell works with a 22-member committee, University advisers, and state and county agencies that work with foster youth, as well as a network of local supporters and volunteers, all to help each student find solutions to their own unique set of challenges. In addition, McConnell works with staff at each of Penn State’s Commonwealth campuses, so students have a large support network available to them, wherever they are attending classes.
“I reach out to students each month at all the campuses via Zoom, just to touch base and see how they are doing. I track their academic progress, and I’ll also send out care packages containing snacks and personal hygiene products,” said McConnell. “We’re very fortunate Penn State is so proactive in working with foster students. The program does so much more than just finding students tuition money. We take a holistic approach and provide students with whatever they may need, including emotional and mental health support.”
Additional support is provided to foster students through Fostering Independence Through Education Act that was enacted in 2020. It provides a waiver for tuition and mandatory fees charged by most postsecondary institutions located in the Commonwealth for youth who are or were in foster care.
This gift will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.