“I was pretty independent when I was younger because I had to grow up really fast. At the age of eight, I had to learn how to do a lot of things on my own,” says Aja Dunlap.
At eight years old, Aja and her siblings were separated from her parents due to domestic violence. By the age of 17, Aja had lived in four different foster homes and attended six different high schools throughout the Sacramento Area.
“When they separated us from our parents, that was too much for an eight year old, my brother who was six, and my sister who was three years old. If you look at how old we were that was way too much on us,” said Aja. “They traumatized us during the process and I was triggered every time I went to a new placement and different school.”
Along with facing the trauma that came from being separated from her siblings, Aja had to commute over two hours by bus and train to get to class. Without access to a stable support system, Aja relied on school to get through each and every day.
“I didn’t have too much of a support system. Everyone that was trying to take care of me wasn’t trying to take care of me the correct way,” Aja said. “I really relied on school to help me with my mental health and get opportunities to do things.”
Inspired by her teacher, Aja decided that she would pursue a higher education at Sacramento State University. Fortunately, Aja was able to join AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a nonprofit college-readiness program designed to help students develop the skills they need to be successful in college. AVID also helped Aja to navigate the college application process and learn how to file for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Through her hard work, Aja was accepted to Sacramento State. As the first in her family to attend college, Aja has been able to guide her siblings in learning more about the application process and steps to receive financial aid.
Aja also became a JBAY Youth Advocate to advocate and support other current and former foster youth.
“I am really grateful that I have been able to share my experiences and do all these articles to support other youth,” said Aja. “It is really difficult that they have to go through those hoops and I can support them in other ways like talking about assignments, their futures, their jobs. My siblings weren’t able to get much and I had a lot of help through the foster care system, so I helped my sister with housing for a little bit who was sleeping in her car.”
After losing their mother this past May and facing the multiple stressors with the coronavirus pandemic, Aja shared that her siblings have become much closer and have been able to support each other through this time.
Despite all of these challenges, Aja has been able to continue her education while also advocating for foster youth and youth at the risk of becoming homeless. This past March, Aja helped write policy changes to California officials to protect foster youth during the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 poses a special risk to children and youth in foster care, who are the legal dependents of the State of California,” the letter states. “While California’s response to COVID-19 is critical for all, children and youth in foster care uniquely rely on the public child welfare system to ensure their economic, emotional and educational well-being.”
Aja is now pursuing a degree in criminal justice to ensure that other youth don’t fall through the cracks.
Now in her third year at Sacramento State, she is joining the Criminal Justice Fellowship to advance racial and economic justice.