Walking into the social work office, the girl's nervous thoughts begin.
The feeling of the unknown, the discomfort from the suspense. What foster home placement will take place next, or how will that court hearing turn out?
"I learned to advocate for myself," said Tiffany Lozoya, a UW-Whitewater alumna who spent more than five years in Wisconsin's foster case system. "Those moments of discomfort showed me that my voice really matters. This is my life and I had to learn how to speak up for it."
Lozoya is now the recipient of a national leadership award, and pursuing graduate research to help the approximately 397,000 children in foster care in the United States.
"For individuals in foster care, permission has to be granted by a social worker to do a lot of normal things, like go to a friend's house or go on a school field trip," Lozoya said. "The answer was typically, ‘not up to me, when you grow up, do something about it.' That's the goal of my work, to do something to improve the child welfare system on a larger scale."
A Beloit native, Lozoya spent time in four different foster care placements in Stoughton and Monroe, and later decided to attend UW-Whitewater.
She majored in social work and graduated in 2012. She is currently pursuing a master's degree at the University of California, Berkeley.
Lozoya was recently named an Outstanding Young Leader, out of 100 individuals, by FosterClub. FosterClub is a national network of young people who are involved with the foster care system, lending support to past and current foster youth. She was chosen because of her research and efforts to increase knowledge, education and assistance for foster youth. Her undergraduate research topic at UW-Whitewater was "What Helps and Hinders Former Foster Youth in earning a College or Vocational Degree."
The research was fueled by her personal experiences as a foster child, specifically her difficult time applying to college.
"People I interacted with while in foster care did not know how foster youth apply for college, so I began a lengthy trial-and-error process" Lozoya said. "I felt very discouraged, because why does someone who is trying to overcome so much have to go through all this extra trouble, just so they can do something positive with their life?"
Lozoya found a welcome home at UW-Whitewater and became a McNair Scholar to further her research on a larger scale. The McNair Scholars program offers resources and guidance to low-income, first-generation students who wish to pursue undergraduate research and eventual careers as college professors.
"McNair opened my eyes to all of the research possibilities and showed me what I can accomplish with the right guidance," Lozoya said. "The program offered a great support system and has paved the way for me to eventually give back to the world."
Lozoya also started her own student organization committed to promoting success among foster youth.
UW-Whitewater benefitted greatly by having Lozoya as a student, said Jim Winship, professor of social work.
"Tiffany served as a real-life example for other students of the kind of people they are going to work with in social work," Winship said. "There are a number of students that we find out are foster youth after they graduate because they feel ashamed. Tiffany coming out as someone in foster care showed strength and conviction that can make a difference."
As she prepares for a career in the social work field, she'll never forget her roots at UW-Whitewater, she said.
"If I had to do it over again, I'd still pick UW-Whitewater. One of the best decisions I ever made," Lozoya said. "The university encourages people to pursue their dreams, and to never let the past keep any student from moving forward in life."
-- Written by Jonathan Fera