From Foster Care to College: Getting To “Z”


Briyana Dunn at Pelissippi State Community College, September 2012. Photo by Christine Jessel.


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Knoxville, Tenn. — Briyana Dunn would be the kid who picks you up and dusts you off after the school bully pushes you down – even though she might laugh at you a little first. She’s a no-nonsense, nonstop talker who makes up in sass what she lacks in stature.

It’s hard to reconcile the sunny person Briyana is today with the girl she was: An angry runaway cops hauled into juvenile custody at 16; the girl who, a year later, landed in a psychiatric care facility for youth. She’s just so … upbeat.

Briyana started college in Knoxville when she aged out of state custody.               

“They told me that they help you go to school but they didn’t tell me that they’d pay for it and they’ll help you, give you a little salary like to be able to live off of, basically stuff like that, cause when I hear post custody, I still hear DCS – ooh, no, DCS. I don’t wanna deal with them. But once I turned 18, it was explained to me,” she says.

DCS will help foster kids who want to go to college – but it means they’re still stuck with DCS rules. It’s not always a popular arrangement. Briyana says she came to accept it through therapy and “tough love.”

“For so long, I was like a M&M so hard on the outside but so soft on the in, and those therapy sessions really helped me to realize you need to accept the help that DCS is gonna give you,” she says. ”And it also made me feel like, you went through crap with DCS, they owe you something. So yeah, that’s kind of how I looked at it.”

Briyana says if she ever wants to make real money, then she has to go to college. Eventually, she says, she’d like to be a neonatal nurse.

“I don’t want to work minimum wage for the rest of my life. Ha. I wanna be successful and I want everybody around me to be proud.”

Briyana says going into foster care was actually kind of a blessing, because that’s where she met mentors who told her they were proud of her; that she could be a success story.

“I started from ‘A’ and I feel like right now I’m all the way on like, ‘R’ –  you know, I’m gettin’ to my ‘Z’ and I’m just working slowly and I used to be embarrassed about being a foster kid like go to school, and I think it’s just perceived wrong. Yeah. I’m proud to be an ex-foster kid.”

Briyana says she has a lot to prove to her family.

“You know, a lot of them had gave – given up hope on me because I had been in custody twice and I was always in trouble, and they could never understand, like ‘Why, what’s wrong with you; Why you keep actin’ up,’ but now that they see, ‘Briyana has her own apartment, she’s going to school,’ it’s just something that makes me smile,” she says.

Without help from DCS, Briyana says doesn’t think she’d be this close to success.

“I probably would have struggled,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have went immediately. I probably would have ended up doing like a lot of people and saying ah, I’ll wait, I’m tired of school, I’ll wait – and then it never happens. But it’s the total opposite I’m in school I have an apartment I’m gonna get a job soon – and I’m happy. Really happy.”

This interview was recorded in September of 2012. At that time Briyana still had more than a year to finish her degree. And research shows that students who have been in foster care are among the most high-risk for dropping out of college before they finish.

“I just couldn’t get out the bed anymore. I just refused,” she says.

In Part Two, we’ll catch up with Briyana again to see how she’s doing.

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