Former Foster Care Child on Path to Succeed as ATEC Student
Tiffany Sweet is not one to let a difficult past define her.
For someone raised in the state foster care system, it might seem insurmountable to tackle a degree program at an academically rigorous university like UT Dallas. But Sweet is well on her way, maintaining a GPA above 3.0 in her first semester as an Arts and Technology (ATEC) major.
“It was hard coming from a place where I was at the top of my class and now I’m in the middle,” Sweet said.
Despite the adjustment to college life, Sweet is hardly average, according to those who know her. She is a Terry Scholar who aspires to put her technical acumen and love of the arts to work in film animation.
“Tiffany is a remarkable young woman,” said Blythe Torres, director of the Terry Scholars Program. “She’s bright, creative and hard-working. I’m proud to have her in my program.”
Sweet is a recent recipient of the “Youth Participant of the Year” award from the Workforce Solutions for North Central Texas, which helps at-risk youths find employment and prepare for educational opportunities.
The organization helped Sweet land an internship as an editorial clerk at the Waxahachie Daily Light newspaper while she was still in high school. Sweet was nominated by her supervisor for the award and beat out more than 500 youth applicants in North Texas.
Anthony Moore of the Waxahachie Workforce Center described Sweet as “determined, focused, goal-oriented and sweet, yet ruthlessly serious about her success.”
“Tiffany could have used her foster care experience as an excuse to be angry, act out and fail, as many do. She saw her situation as an opportunity and used it as a reason to succeed,” Moore said. “Her actions, attitude and accomplishments were astounding for a teenager. I wish I had 20 more just like her.”
A Turbulent Childhood
Sweet’s determination and success so far have been hard-earned.
When she was a toddler, she was placed with her older sister in foster care homes around the Dallas area. At age 6, she was adopted by one of her foster care families, but physical abuse soon drove Sweet and her sister from the home.
The girls were then placed in a group home on the campus of the Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services in Waxahachie. Eight girls shared a home with a set of house parents. Though several of the staff were “like grandparents” to her, many of them frequently moved on, leaving the girls without a long-term adult connection.
Sweet found other role models and a supportive environment at Central Presbyterian Church, where she stayed active in the youth worship team and adult chancel choir. She also participated in youth mission trips and service projects, and helped lead vacation Bible school.
“A lot of kids don’t bond with adults outside the group home. At church is where I got a lot of my support. I have had mentors along the way,” Sweet said. “Probably one of the biggest things in my life, though, is God. I’ve always prayed and asked for help.”
School Offered Positive Feedback
Sweet said she exceled at school because she received positive adult attention and feedback.
“I needed to know I was doing a good job,” Sweet said. “I needed to hear that from teachers, because I didn’t have parents to tell me that. That’s when I started to do really well.”
In her junior year, Sweet transferred from Waxahachie High School to Waxahachie Global High School, one of 38 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) academies in Texas. She was required to take two engineering classes as part of her coursework; she did so well she joined the school’s Engineering Now Club, which helps spark elementary school children’s interest in technology fields.
Global High also let her take dual credits for college. By the time Sweet graduated, she also had earned an associate degree in general science — graduating magna cum laude from Navarro College, a two-year institution.
Knowing she wanted a four-year degree, her church awarded her its Barbara and Mayo Tenery Scholarship to help with college expenses. Becoming a Terry Scholar sealed the deal for her to attend UT Dallas.
It’s significant that Tiffany grew up in the foster system and has already earned an associate degree. It speaks to her fortitude.
director of the Terry Scholars Program
Higher education tuition in Texas is waived for students coming out of the foster care system, but not many young people take advantage of that break. Citing national studies, Torres said just 13 percent of foster care children attend college with only 2 percent graduating.
“It’s significant that Tiffany grew up in the foster system and has already earned an associate degree. It speaks to her fortitude,” said Torres, who noted other Terry Scholars have come through the foster care system.
The Terry Scholar Program, which normally also covers tuition, is picking up Sweet’s other expenses not covered by her church scholarship this year, including housing, meal plan and books.
“I was always an artist, ever since I could pick up a pencil. I love seeing things come to life, taking things that are only in your mind and making them real,” Sweet said.
At UT Dallas, she’s made some friends who offer to let her spend holidays and summer breaks with their families. She has a boyfriend. And living in a residence hall with just two other roommates is nothing compared to a group home.
Whenever she gets discouraged, Sweet has a “pep talk” with herself.
“I go through a checklist and tell myself: ‘You’re smart. You have a lot of things going for you. There are a lot of people watching what you do,’” she said. “There are a lot of kids back in the home, and I want to be an example of breaking the cycle of abuse.”
“I always tell people, ‘Don’t ever let your past be a reason you can’t do something,’” Sweet said. “I always wanted things to be better, but you can learn from the bad decisions of others and make it different for yourself. I do a lot of stuff for that little Tiffany.”