Fewer than 3 percent of foster kids nationally go on to college. Despite those odds, Gina Pearson, a senior social work major, has excelled at Rutgers, her first real home. She also gives back to foster children as a speaker. It is a remarkable achievement after a lifetime of more than 30 foster care placements.
Pearson has earned all A's since entering into the social work major, and was inducted into Phi Alpha Honor Society and received the National Honor Society of Leadership and Success presidential award in recognition of her GPA. She has also thrived socially and has a strong group of friends who feel like family.
“Coming to Rutgers took me out of a negative environment and gave me an opportunity to feel a sense of independence and achievement,” says Pearson. Now she has taken the opportunity to give back to children still in the foster care system.
As an ambassador for the Rutgers School of Social Work youth advisory boards, she meets with foster youth to improve the services provided to them by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. She hopes that sharing her story will empower others transitioning through the foster care system, and her dream is to become a law guardian, a lawyer who advocates for foster kids.
The story Pearson tells about her life in foster care begins after years of parental neglect, stealing food to survive and running unsupervised in the streets of Camden. While Gina’s brothers and sisters cried when they were taken away from their mother and put into foster care, Pearson always knew it would happen.
“I became prepared mentally. It made me emotionally resilient,” she says. “And I lean on my faith a great deal.”
Pearson recalls being told by a caretaker in one of her foster families that she was “too stupid” to achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer.
She describes those years as painful, “a crazy, jumbled mess.” Four of the siblings were together at the first foster home but were soon separated. At another placement, she was never sent to school but kept home to watch the family’s other children. In all, she had 30 placements by the time she finished high school.“I don’t ever remember doing homework or having an adult supervise my work,” Pearson says. “It feels like I was just pushed through the system because I was smart enough to survive.”
At Haddon Township High School, she rebelled. One day in math class, during a project that involved golf balls, she threw one at her teacher, Cherylyn Straubmuller. But instead of punishing her, Straubmuller became a mentor to Pearson. She saw that Gina was intelligent and capable of great things, and she helped her to attain college acceptance.
“I never trusted women before her because they always hurt me. On my 17th birthday she gave me a journal with the quote, ‘You determine your success and happiness.’ Now those are the words I live by.”
Pearson is the first recipient of Rutgers' Krystal Skinner Memorial Scholarship, established after the death of the Rutgers University-Camden student, a senior a working toward her bachelor’s degree in social work. She is also able to spend summers on campus through the Transitions for Youth: Summer Housing and Internship Program (SHIP). Overseen by the School of Work and funded by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, SHIP was created for young college students who need a place to live during the summer. Additionally, she receives funds from the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Educational Opportunity Fund.
Success at Rutgers
One of Pearson's best parts of college has been an unexpected reunion with younger brother, Keith DuPree, who she had not seen since childhood. It was exceedingly painful when they were separated from that first foster home at such a young age. DuPree, a junior at majoring in environmental economics, connected with her on Facebook and suggested that they hang out. Although she was apprehensive, she is thrilled that they are family again.
“You wonder, is it awkward after all this time when someone has not been in your life? But it felt like we never skipped a beat. We even look identical. It has been meaningful.”
Pearson feels “safe” on the New Brunswick Campus where she resides and looks to her upcoming graduation with mixed emotions.
“This is the only consistent and comfortable home I have ever had where I am truly able to be myself.”
“Gina is a brave, intelligent, remarkable young woman,'' said Maureen Braun Scalera, director of the Office of Child Welfare Initiatives. "As Youth Ambassador, she provides leadership to other YAB youth to help them find their voice and become advocates for change in how child welfare services are provided.”
Contact: Beth Salamon
848-932-5340 or cell 908-217-7707