Great Oaks Village Resident Makes History, Earns AA Degree from Valencia College

Community & Services

Statistics show that 50 percent of foster kids graduate from high school, but only 10 percent apply to college. Even more discouraging, less than 3 percent of the foster kids who go to college wind up completing their degree. Not good odds, but not a problem for Hartley Villagra, 19, who recently became the first resident in the 97-year history of Great Oaks Village to earn an Associate in Arts or an AA degree.

Villagra was sent into foster care four years ago at age 15. After two years of being housed in different group homes and attending various high schools throughout the state, she wound up at Great Oaks Village, an Orange County residential foster group home for children ages 6 to 18+ who have been removed from their homes by the State of Florida due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.

These moves typically set foster-care students back at least a year in their education with every change, but Hartley refused to fall behind. While at Great Oaks Village, Villagra graduated from Winter Park High School and transitioned over to Valencia College, earning an AA degree and graduating with honors. She will be transitioning to UCF in the fall to start on a bachelor’s degree with a major in Criminal Justice.

“In foster care, the prevailing attitude is you maybe graduate from high school and get a minimum wage job, so you don’t worry about college,” explained Villagra. “This just motivated me more because I’m pretty hard-headed; I wasn’t going to let limited thinking deflate my dreams.”

Understandably, foster group homes are focused on healing past traumas and getting young adults through high school. Villagra was fortunate that her Foundation for Foster Children youth advocate encouraged her not to give up on her college dream. “He told me I would go to college because I could do it, and he constantly reinforced that in me,” she said.

Villagra admitted maintaining a positive attitude in foster care can be difficult. “I realized I was stronger than I thought I was and that the negativity other people were putting on me was something I could shed,” she said. “I had to make my own decisions about my education and create a positive outcome for myself.”

For Villagra, who has now become an advocate for better educations and educational support for foster kids, getting a bachelor’s degree is just another step on the way to obtaining a law degree from Florida A&M University.

“I hope to transfer the knowledge I obtain from law school to help foster youth,” she said. “They deserve to be told they’re worthy because they’ve already dealt with getting knocked down and feeling like they don’t deserve to be happy. We have to deal with the trauma associated with that, but we also have to look to the future and have confidence we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.”

To find out more about Great Oaks Village, contact Dr. Tracy Salem at or call 407-836-7682.

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