Theresa Moy: Helping kids from China to Minnesota

By Olivia Provan

Theresa Moy has lived in the Midwest for her whole life, and has a unique story. She is using her personal experiences to help individuals currently and previously in foster care system. She recently returned from a semester abroad in China. Here, Moy talks about her current work and what she hopes to accomplish.Had you always been interested in issues related to foster care?

I’ve always been interested in a lot of things. When I was little I wanted to be an international lawyer. I wanted to help people so I figured lawyer, and I wanted to travel so I figured international lawyer. Then when I was 12 and entered the foster care system I went to court the first time and saw and met a lot of people who had gone through a lot – I just wanted to help. I don’t know if I just want to get my Ph.D. and be a professor, I want to make social change and do something, I guess that’s just more me.

Are you still working with the foster care system?

Well, that’s kind of what my honors project is about.

You’re a Psychology major, right? What is your project about?

Yes, I’m a Psychology major. My project is exploring the higher education experiences of foster care youth. Specifically, why some succeed and why some don’t. One study, the NW Foster Care Alumni study, found that only 2 percent of foster care students nationally get their Bachelors degree. In Hennepin County alone, there’s a 40 percent dropout rate in the first year of college. My project is to find out why people are dropping out. I feel that if you’ve gotten to college that’s a milestone in and of itself – why do some drop out once they have already gotten there?

As someone who has gone through the system, do you think pursuing and completing higher-level education is about self-motivation?

I definitely think that it was about self-motivation. I mean, there were some people in my life that were good role models who wanted me to pursue higher education but at the end it was really a personal decision. For a lot of the students here, their parents have always said, “you have to go here and do this,” but that was never really an issue for me.

How did you settle on Macalester?

I was born and raised in Minnesota so I knew I wanted to stay here. I also really wanted a place with a focus on internationalism and a really diverse campus. I spent five years in the foster care system and had a lot of disconnect with my biological family. It was really tough being in the foster care system. I grew up in a Chinese family then went through Caucasian and Liberian families, so identity was a big issue for me. Macalester gave me the kind of environment where I didn’t have to be just one of many.

Last semester you went abroad to China. Was that your first time there?

My first time out of the country – my first passport and everything.

What was your motivation for going to China? Where did you stay?

I went to Kun Ming, China in the Unan province. Basically I went over there to improve Mandarin skills and work on my independent study. I looked at institutional versus foster care models in China in the Anhui province. I was in the capital of Hefei.

What kind of research were you doing?

It was qualitative research because it was really tough to get any information with that population. They really don’t accept foreigners doing research at all. I said I was a student and wanted to volunteer at the orphanage – I didn’t tell them I was doing research. I talked to the workers and children and asked them about their experiences. The actual site was pretty much an apartment building. They would hire foster parents to live in the apartments instead of having the children move around to different homes. The foster parents would have to be over 40 years old, and have no children or children who have already grown up so that there’s no competition. Here, being a foster parent is just, you apply, go through this training, and become a foster parent. It’s easier here than in China to become a foster parent.

So, do you think that the foster care system for children is better in China or America?

Well, conditions in China aren’t very good for a lot of kids. When I was in Lijiang I saw one girl who was spinning upside-down on her head – she was biting on some device that supported her and was leaning onto it for support. It was her way of making a living. I was really shocked to see that it was mainly kids who were on the streets, not adults or older people. A lot of the street children are kidnapped and are taught to do acrobatic things like that for the person in charge. Some of the kids were disabled and deformed in ways that I’ve never seen before. The kidnappers would deform some of the children by doing things like breaking their legs then put them on their streets. Someone made $50,000 that way. I didn’t really want to see that but at the same time it’s reality. I’ve never been in a situation where kids beg for money.

That sounds pretty intense. Did you get a chance to travel around and go sightseeing?

Well, on a more positive note, when I was in Beijing at some of the historical sites, we went to this restaurant where we all danced on the tables. It was Xingjian food from an area in China that feels like you’re in the Middle East.

Do you have any plans for after graduation?

Eventually I want to do something that helps national policies and find out why there is this high dropout rate. Obviously, this is not something that can be solved in my senior year. But first I want to get my Masters in Social Work, then a Ph.D. I want to do something to influence policy on the child welfare system.