When Sarah Heard ’18 and Justin Abbasi ’18 became friends during their first year at Yale, they found that they shared a common background: their experience with the foster care system. From the beginning of their time in college, the two were interested in establishing a network of people on campus with similar experiences.

Now, Abbasi and Heard’s four-year-old idea is coming to fruition. The current seniors began laying the foundations for the network in the fall of their junior year, and last week Dwight Hall announced the launch of the Yale Harbor Scholars Program, a support program for students who are or were in out-of-home care. Set to launch fully in the fall 2018 semester, the program will seek to provide participants with academic and financial support, as well as build a community of students from similar backgrounds.

“I hope that this program can mitigate the inequity that more often than not exists between students from this background and most other students at Yale, whether it’s related to financial, academic or social support,” Abbasi said. “I’m hoping that this program can bridge that gap and provide students with a more equitable experience at the University.”

The Harbor Scholars Program aims to provide academic support to its participants, through mentorship by the Academic Strategies Program, and social support, through establishing a network of students with experience in foster care, as well as a group of professors willing to provide guidance to the Scholars.

The program also includes the promise of financial assistance — funded by several anonymous donors, according to Dwight Hall Executive Director Peter Crumlish — in the form of help with buying course materials or obtaining travel funds for breaks.

Abbasi said the program also seeks to include a community service aspect. The program’s leadership is currently in contact with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families to determine ways Harbor Scholars can “give back” to high school students in foster care in Connecticut, he said.

Crumlish said the program is being run through the umbrella community service and social justice organization for several reasons, including Dwight Hall’s status as a 501(c)(3) organization that simplifies the program’s financial aspects, the organization’s role as a platform for supporting student leadership and initiative and the underlying social justice issue that the program addresses.

“It is certainly a matter of justice that if you’re admitted to Yale, you should have the opportunities to have as many of the same kind of experiences that are open to any other student,” Crumlish said. “This is a very particular need here, and so being able to do something about it is certainly something Dwight Hall wants to be a part of.”

But identifying students who could potentially benefit from the program is a “complicated logistical question,” Crumlish said. After approaching Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan about the issue last fall, Crumlish found that they were unable to identify incoming scholars due to privacy reasons.

Moving forward, someone from admissions or financial aid will reach out to qualifying students and provide them with information about how to become part of the program, Crumlish said.

“The idea is to be respectful of people’s privacy, but also to let them know, ‘Hey, it’s up to you if you’re interested,’” he said. “This is a resource that’s available.”

Both Crumlish and Heard stressed that the program is not limited to first years and that they want the program to reach as many qualified students as possible.

“There’s not very many programs at Yale that are so comprehensive, especially after being a first year,” Heard said. “I think this will be a sort of continued, sustained support throughout the years that could be really strong.”

In deciding what to call the program, the two co-founders shied away from the use of the term “foster,” so as not to force program participants to reveal an aspect of their background that they may not wish to share, Abbasi said.

Heard ultimately came up with the term “Harbor Scholar” to signify the core goals of the program.

“I came up with the idea of ‘harbor,’ as in harboring a deep-seated feeling of safety and trust and support,” Heard said. “But also ‘harbor’ as in a place where ships come to rest, and where they’re also sent off into their next adventure — I think that’s kind of what we see the Harbor Scholars as.”

Heard also emphasized that the program has the ability to provide a space for students to navigate their identities while deciding for themselves how private or public they want to make their experiences.

Abbasi said his primary hope for the program is that “students who come from this nontraditional background feel more welcome and more affirmed during their time here at Yale.”

“[I hope] they feel more comfortable with their story, comfortable with their background and can understand and appreciate it in a way that they might not have been able to do so previously,” he said.

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, less than three percent of youth raised in foster care graduate from a four-year college.

Asha Prihar |

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.