PHOENIX - Grand Canyon University students are returning to school.
For the 2022-2023 school year, the private Christian school in Phoenix welcomes its largest class ever, with more than 9,700 new students connected to the Phoenix campus. Overall, total enrollment is expected to be around 25,000 students for the fall.
Move-in day for GCU students was Aug. 29, and a week earlier, about a dozen or so students moved in, as part of a first-of-its-kind program in Arizona to give foster kids a chance at earning a college degree, for free.
One of those students is Damien Roberts, who moved into Juniper Hall. Roberts, an 18-year-old from Yuma, grew up in the state's foster system with his siblings and was shuffled from one home to another.
Damien has aged out of the foster system, but thanks to Arizona's new Fostering Futures program, Damien and others are getting free tuition, food, and tutoring at college.
In addition to free tuition, they are also getting something that has been missing in their lives: a reliable place to call home.
"One of the challenges all young people have right now is a safe place to lay their head," said Mike Faust, Director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety. "Where are they going to stay at night."
The Department of Child Safety partnered with GCU and the Governor's Office to help provide a path for these kids to earn a free 4-year college degree, but Faust believes one of the best parts of the program is the fully funded, year-round room-and-board.
"These young people moving in, this is Day 1 of what might be their four years on campus," said Faust.
Unlike most incoming college freshmen, Damien, along with others in the program, won't have parents or relatives to help him get settled. That's where the mentorship program comes in.
Brandi Turner is the program's student administrator. She says more than 100 current GCU students who are also former foster kids themselves will help students like Damien navigate the challenges of being a college kid.
"I think having someone to talk to who knows the system will definitely be encouraging for them," said Turner.
As for Damien, he is studying hospitality and business management, with dreams of opening his own restaurant one day. He is also hoping to be the first in his family to get a college degree.
Nationwide, only about 10% of kids in the foster care system go on to get a four-year college degree, and GCU is hoping to change that. They want to triple the number of 'Fostering Futures' scholarships handed out next semester, or even next year.