Seth Morones-Ramírez, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, grew up in and out of the foster-care system. At times, he was homeless: staying in a motel, car, group home or shelter or sleeping on the couches of kind-hearted friends.
The hardest part was “surviving it,” says Morones-Ramírez and the lingering sense of fear, loss, abandonment and being unloved.
“You don’t ever stop feeling like a homeless kid,” he says. “Academia calls that ‘trauma.’”
He says he knew that as long as he could go to college, he would not have to be homeless anymore because he could secure a dormitory residence. But residing in group homes and living with multiple foster families had a negative impact on his grades. Morones-Ramírez barely finished high school.
“I could never have seen myself at a place like Penn, when I was lying awake at night in the group home that I was living in when I was 16,” he says.
He recalls arriving at the University of Northern Colorado as a freshman with nothing but a few clothes and his acceptance letter. He says a staff member at its Independent Youth Initiative handed him a shower caddy filled with personal-hygiene necessities. Luckily, UNC offered a program that addressed the unique needs of incoming former foster youth, from assisting with financial-aid applications and registration to signing up for campus housing to selecting a meal plan.
In the summer of 2014, with his undergraduate degree under his belt, he moved to Philadelphia to enroll in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, where he found a lifelong mentor in John Fantuzzo, a professor in the Education Policy Division.
“In so many ways, Seth has demonstrated his courage,” Fantuzzo says. “He faced significant challenges in our Ivy League classrooms; he voiced his needs, trusted his professors and peers and formed real relationships benefitting all involved. This is the stuff of great leaders.”
“I literally went from being a homeless teen to an Ivy League student,” says Morones-Ramírez.
He credits Fantuzzo’s “Child Development and Social Policy” course with outlining his core belief system on “supporting and addressing the holistic needs of children.” That idea, he says, comes straight from Fantuzzo, adding that the class was paramount to understanding the nuances of education and social-welfare policy.
“The marker of a good professor, class or program is not the quantifiable skills you leave with but the degree to which your passions and interests are challenged and augmented,” Morones-Ramírez says. “Penn GSE has been instrumental in helping me develop my passions and skills to better support youth experiencing homelessness and foster care.”
After graduating with a master’s of science in educational policy, Morones-Ramírez worked on the Urban Affairs Coalition’s youth-development programs and on early-childhood-education issues with Action for Early Learning at Drexel University.
His experiences in foster care and as a homeless teen guide Morones-Ramírez in his work with youth who are “aging out” of the foster-care system and transitioning into adulthood.
“Being able to empathize with other former homeless and foster youth has been critical to not only my work but also to my commitment to improving the lives of youth experiencing homelessness and foster care, and their trust and belief in me are a tremendous gift,” he says. “It still hurts to hear their stories of pain and neglect, but I am very blessed to be at a place in my life now where I can help them.”
In September, Morones-Ramírez will return to Penn’s campus, this time as a Stoneleigh Fellow with Penn’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research, which brings together experts from the schools of Social Policy & Practice, Law, Medicine and Nursing and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to bring critical change to the child-welfare system by shaping policy through research and by supporting legislative reform.For Morones-Ramírez, it was like Cinderella’s foot fitting perfectly inside the glass slipper.
“Being selected as a Stoneleigh Fellow is an incredible honor,” he says. “The Stoneleigh Foundation’s commitment to supporting vulnerable youth through a social-justice and equity lens is exemplified in their dedication to projects that address the broad needs of vulnerable and at-risk youth.”
As a Stoneleigh Fellow at the Field Center for two years, Morones-Ramirez will create a comprehensive statewide directory of resources, services and programs that assist college-bound former foster youth across Pennsylvania, listing information about each college and university. For instance, to a foster youth with nowhere to go while school is not in session, it matters whether an institution makes housing available during holiday breaks and during the summer months.
“Seth brings a unique blend of scholarship, passion and authenticity to this fellowship,” says Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center. “He has not only studied the issue, he has personally lived it.”
In addition, Morones-Ramírez will assist in the development of 10 programs at colleges and universities across the state to support foster youth from their first day on campus through graduation.
“I’m excited to bring my first-hand perspective as a former homeless youth to the table,” he says, adding his new position reinforces his beliefs about treating the “whole” child.
“There are many people involved in a child’s life, and bringing people from all different backgrounds –- health and medicine, social work, counseling, education and juvenile justice to name a few –- forces us to intentionally address the holistic needs of these youth and not just one part of their lives,” he says. “I am most looking forward to having the opportunity to promote lasting change.”