Peggy Eighmy, First Lady, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Fostering Children to Brighter Futures

By Dawn Robinette,

Photography by David Teran

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DT1 3930 web 1

Most people don’t equate Boston to San Antonio, but to Peggy Eighmy, First Lady of The University of Texas at San Antonio, her hometown and the Alamo City have a lot in common.

“I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are elements of San Antonio that remind me of Boston – a sense of history being so much a part of the environment, both literally from the buildings, the Old North Church, the Alamo, the missions, where Washington took control of the troops – history is very much present and visceral. The rich history, historical buildings and monuments – it’s really what resonates for me, as does the diversity of the community. I know it may sound strange, but it reminds me of home,” she explains.

She senses it in San Antonio’s attitude as well. “There is a unique spirit of openness to new ideas and cooperation here. That absolutely permeates Boston. Whether it’s the tech industry, biotech or medicine and higher education, it’s a place where different ways of thinking are welcomed.”

Eighmy and her husband, Taylor, President of The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), have called San Antonio home since 2017. San Antonio’s openness and willingness to try new efforts is what sparked Eighmy to work with local and state leaders to launch the Bexar County Fostering Educational Success (BCFES) Pilot Project. Funded by the Texas Legislature, BCFES works to improve college enrollment, retention and graduation rates for students with a history of foster care. The program also works to increase the number of children in foster care who understand that attending college is achievable and expected – and to help them be academically and emotionally prepared to successfully navigate college.

“Research tells us that a college degree is associated with better health, a longer life and a higher income. Yet less than 3% of young people who have been in foster care will graduate from college. They are overrepresented in the homeless and incarcerated populations and experience trauma, mental health problems and substance abuse at high levels,” she explains.

“I believe higher education can break an intergenerational cycle of poverty and involvement with the child welfare system. And for young people who are in foster care, no one may have told them they can go to college. No one has shown them what the value of a college education means in every sense of the word. I’m not talking just about your career. I’m talking about community. I’m talking about what it means for your own intellectual life – all those things no one has told them – and no one’s helped them get there.”

For the first time, partners across child welfare, the Children’s Court, and two- and four-year colleges in Bexar County are working together for the common goal of improving educational outcomes for foster care alumni and children still in foster care. “I believe that we must make children in foster care aware of the potential of college as early as possible, set the expectation that they can and will go to college, and then we must create pathways that give them the support they need to graduate high school and enroll in college.”

The BCFES Project has served more than 500 foster care alumni enrolled at UTSA, Texas A&M-San Antonio and the Alamo Colleges, and provided pre-college programming to over 225 youth still in foster care. “I believe public universities can be catalysts for change and have a critical role to play in helping young people with experience in foster care reach their highest potential. We must engage and work with child welfare systems and K-12 schools long before these students reach a college campus. I am so proud UTSA is doing exactly that.”

“While youth with a history of foster care have unique challenges and needs, I believe they also have incredible strengths like self-reliance, fortitude and problem-solving skills that, when recognized and leveraged, position them well for success in college.”

UTSA is the first university in the country to develop and receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a housing and supportive services program for students with a history of foster care who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. The program builds on existing campus-based and community resources to provide housing, assistance with rent and utility deposits, childcare, mental health services, legal services and life skill development.

And it’s working: There was a 55% increase in enrollment at UTSA of students with a history of foster care from 2019 to 2022.

Eighmy’s drive to help foster children began when she started her career in child welfare in Massachusetts. She’s worked as an advocate for children in foster care, and later as an investigator for child abuse and neglect cases, then as both a volunteer and a staff member with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).

The children and young adults she meets through her work in foster care fuel her to do more. “They are among the most resilient, courageous and hopeful people I know. The young people who age out of foster care – can you imagine yourself at 18 without a family or safety net? Despite all the obstacles thrown in their way and the sorrow and trauma endured, to still see the possibility of a better life and go for it. There is extraordinary grace and courage in that, and real power, too. To be the person in your family who breaks the often-intergenerational cycle of poverty and involvement with the foster care system – they inspire me every day.”

She takes her role as UTSA’s First Lady to heart, bleeding blue and orange like every good Roadrunner. “Taylor often says he has the best job in San Antonio. But with all due respect to him, I think I do,” she exclaims.

“Taylor and I have been at four different public universities, and there is something very special about UTSA that we didn’t experience elsewhere. I believe it is our students. Nearly 50% of them are first-generation college students. Most work – many full-time – while attending college full-time. They do not take going to college for granted. They are purposeful and very hard-working. As a First Gen student myself, that really resonates with me.”

Eighmy is also a first-generation American, something she shares with many Roadrunners. “My mother came to this country from County Cork in Ireland in 1947. Ireland was a very poor country at the time. My mother was introverted, afraid, and very sad about leaving home. But she came to the United States, embodying the American Dream. She worked as a maid to support her family in Ireland. My dad was the child of Irish immigrants. They taught my brothers and sisters and me to be proud of our Irishness, to work hard, to be financially self-sufficient, to give to others, no matter how small, and that family always came first.

“Neither of my parents went to college, but they set an expectation very early on that all of us would go, and they held us accountable along the way. There were eight of us, and we put ourselves through college. I wouldn’t have been able to afford college without my public university, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. So, I have a very personal and deep belief in the value of public higher education. I wouldn’t be where I am without my parents, my siblings, or my college degree.

“I really enjoy when I tell students that I am myself a first-gen student and that I’m a first-gen American because they just don’t anticipate that that would be the case.”

Her love of UTSA is only surpassed by her love of her new granddaughter, Maeve. “We became grandparents for the first time last year. Everyone tells you how extraordinary it is. But words don’t do it justice. I hadn’t imagined how profound it is to watch your own child parent, and we take such joy in every little thing Maeve does.”

She follows and gives advice she has taken from the writer Anne Lamott. “She said, ‘My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.’ That really resonated with me as a woman and as a mother. Women and girls can be so very hard on themselves, and our negative thinking can spiral. You need the perspective of someone else who sees you as you truly are, loves you, and who can just be with you when times are challenging or sorrowful.

“Be open to new ideas and experiences,” she urges. “I moved out of New England for the first time at age 43. Doing so has made an enormous impact on my life, personally and professionally. Without being in San Antonio, I never would have had the opportunity to start a program like the Bexar County Fostering Educational Success Project. It is my life’s work. I would have missed it had I stayed in New England.

“No matter how small or how great, if you can impact another human being’s life in a positive way, do it. You will never regret doing so.”

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