Most college students receive some amount of financial aid. The College Board says about two-thirds of full-time students are getting grants or loans to pay for college. The needs, however, are exponentially greater if the student is homeless.
"Coming here to FIU, I had no contacts, I had no family," said FIU freshman Tania Martinez.
She is in the extremely difficult position of being in college with zero parental support. Tania has no one to help pay for her tuition, books, meal plan, or the many other things college students need. She has nowhere to go during school breaks or summers.
Her plight is shared by the 162 students in FIU's Fostering Panther Pride program, designed specifically to fill in the gaps for kids aging out of foster care or whose families are homeless.
"Many of these students, they come, they have nothing other than the clothes on their backs many times," explained Jaffus Hardrick, FIU's Vice Provost for Student Access and Success. "We make it our business to make sure that we reach out to these students and create opportunities for them to get a formal education."
Robinson Ospina is a freshman from Tampa. For him and his peers in the program, Fostering Panther Pride has become their support system in every way.
"Financially, I wouldn't be able to handle it. It has helped me a lot, and I couldn't have done it without them," Robinson said. "They helped me a lot, with life, just anything I need help with, academically, they're there for me as well."
The program doesn't just provide physical necessities, it's a counseling service, too.
"They sit down and meet with us to see how we're doing, to help us stay on track if we feel anything personal is affecting our classes. They do everything in our power to help us and I might not have parents, but they're definitely my family," Tania said.
It obviously goes way beyond traditional financial aid. The FPP students are allowed to stay in their dorm rooms when school isn't in session. Without the program taking care of basic needs, like clothing, food and toiletries, there's no way students like Tania Martinez could succeed in college.
"100 percent. I mean coming into FIU with nothing, literally, I was afraid. I was so stressed out about that part of my life I couldn't focus on school," Tania said.
Tania and Robinson are following a newly-established tradition. Fostering Panther Pride just started in 2013, and already, 28 students have earned undergraduate degrees and two have gone on to receive masters degrees. FIU's simple idea to provide a solution to students who have no family support is working, thanks to students who heartily take advantage of the opportunity to concentrate on academics without worrying about simply surviving.
"When you have those things taken care of and you have the sheer will to want to succeed, despite the circumstances that you find yourself in, listen, there's nothing that can stop you," Hardrick said.
They have ambition, and thanks to Fostering Panther Pride, students who've been dealt an unfair hand in life now have the means to reach their goals.
Financial support for the program comes from the state of Florida and from several private partners and philanthropic organizations.