Dr. Vivian Dorsett Proved She Could Succeed and Believes Other Foster Youth ‘C.A.N.’ too!
Winner of Foster Alumni and Educator Award
Dr. Vivian Dorsett goes beyond what most college professors do to help students succeed. The online instructor in higher education, who earned a doctorate in juvenile justice at Prairie View A&M University in 2012, is particularly passionate about helping college students who spent time in foster care.
An alumna of care who experienced sibling separation and 13 placements before she graduated from high school and aged out at 18, Dorsett knows about the struggles these youth face. Through Prairie View Foster Care Alumni Student Group at Prairie View A&M, Dorsett mentors around 10 to 15 students who came from foster care.
“They don’t’ just need services,” Dorsett, who online teaches sociology and criminal justice for Texas A&M University-Commerce as well as criminal justice, speech and theatre for Itawamba Community College in Mississippi, said. “They need people to care about them.”
Dorset, 51, brings students scholarship information including about the Educational Training Voucher and federal money for school; helps them find jobs and housing; connects students with resources, other departments at the college and other people who can assist them with their needs.
“I have many that are just holding on by a string,” said Dorsett, the single mother of three sons (two are teenagers and one is in his early twenties), said. “Sometimes they go to higher education because there’s nowhere for them to live. They go to campus and they have shelter and then they navigate college on their own and that’s difficult.”
It can be overwhelming. Dorsett, who nominated herself for a Successful Survivor Award and said earning her education as a single mother was among the most difficult things she’s accomplished, wants students to know they aren’t alone.
Dorsett, who lives in Hockley, Texas with her two younger sons (her eldest lives on his own), believes these students need “consistent assistance” and makes herself available by phone as well as has monthly meetings with them.
“It’s not just making sure they have shelter. It’s emotional. It’s mental. It’s more than just the physical. It’s how they’re going to get relationships and how they’re going to navigate through adulthood,” Dorsett, who earned her bachelor’s degree in theatre and sociology in 2001 and master’s degree in theatre in 2004, both from Texas A&M University–Commerce, said.
“There are more on campus but I feel like the ones who have the good foster care parents that are still helping them, those don’t usually cross my path,” she said. “I know of them but they usually don’t cross my path because they don’t need anything because they have people helping them.”
In addition, Dorsett founded a mentorship, advocacy and policy program for people who aged out of foster care that includes but is not exclusive to those in higher education. The group is called Foster Care C.A.N. (Circle of Assistance Network).
Foster Care C.A.N. operates in state and nationally with Dorsett and the other older alumni mentoring young adults from foster care; networking with nonprofits and writing policy recommendations; advocating for awareness; speaking to media; presenting at conferences and providing trainings. (You can learn more by visiting the group’s page on Dorsett’s website, http://www.drviviandorsett.com/FOSTER-CARE-C-A-N-.html.)
Dorsett finds the negative statistics related to outcomes for people who grow up in foster care disturbing. She knows what it’s like to have to raise herself up after leaving foster care. After graduating high school, Dorsett couched surfed and worked her way through cosmetology school. She wanted the love that would come from having a family and went through a string of unsuccessful relationships, eventually finding herself in a dangerous one.
“I found myself homeless after a mistake I made in a relationship, living off a man… I lost everything I had, left everything that I owned and took my two kids in a car and I left,” she said. “I decided I wanted to go to college. I had to get myself back together emotionally. Through all those decisions, I ended up doing a good thing.”
Dorsett believes God guided her to get an education and then help those who have experienced foster care. She chose to combine her passions when she decided to pursue a doctorate in juvenile justice.
“Those seem like two opposite ends of the world when you look at creative arts and criminal justice, but I studied how to use the arts in social justice,” Dorsett said. “I’ve developed different dramatic presentations and they usually have to do with a special injustice topic.”
Through Prairie View A&M University’s theatre department, for example, Dorsett helped create a 10-minute presentation called The System; she directed and her students performed it.
“It was about a young adult navigating from juvenile justice and child welfare. Dual jurisdiction is when some children are stuck in two systems, and that’s a real population that’s neglected,” Dorsett said. “We developed a presentation and presented it at several local, state and national conferences.”
Dorsett, on her own and with Prairie View A&M University’s troupe, the Charles Gilpin Players, writes and directs other dramatic presentations focusing on social issues such as foster care, juvenile justice, sex trafficking and more.
“Drama has a way of tugging at people and bringing things to realism,” she said, noting that she is starting her own troupe, the Agape Theatre Company.
“I’d like to eventually use this group and travel and focus on foster care issues.”
Dorsett, a member of the National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council and the president of the Texas chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America, said teaching online helps enable her to stay involved with advocacy and policy work. She testifies at hearings to help bills she supports pass. Dr. Dorsett trains alumni of care to testify and brings them with her.
“I think it’s very powerful for our powers in legislative and state government to see the young adults in our state, see what they struggle with and listen to their personal story.”