If you ask Tori Petersen ‘18 what Bible verse guides her life, she’ll tell you it’s John 13:33 – 35, the passage about loving one another as Jesus loves us.
“I want people to know my love for Jesus and I want people to be drawn to Him because they see what His love drives me and others to do,” she said.
That passion is what inspired her to start the Fostering the Good scholarship. The fund is Hillsdale College’s only scholarship dedicated to students who spent time in foster care, a system Petersen knows well.
“I grew up with a single mother diagnosed with severe mental illness. My dad wasn’t involved in my life because I was conceived out of a rape, and then my dad passed away a month before I was born,” Petersen said. “Due to my mom’s mental illness, abuse, neglect, and the lack of family on either side, I went into the foster care system at 4 years old and again at 12. I lived in a dozen different homes and remained in the foster care system until I emancipated the day I turned 18.”
In between leaving the foster care system and coming to Hillsdale, Petersen attended a different college. But she began to feel she wasn’t growing in her faith. When her track coach was fired, she took that as a sign that things needed to change.
“I Googled ‘most religious colleges in America’ and Hillsdale came up as number two, so I emailed the track coach and told him I needed a full-ride scholarship and told him my times,” she recalled. “I really wanted to go to Hillsdale because I wanted to be somewhere I could figure out who I was in Christ and how to live that out.”
Petersen graduated with degrees in Christian studies and psychology. Now married and with a 20-month-old son and a baby girl on the way, she continues to be a voice for foster children, especially on social media where she seeks to spread awareness about the system.
It was her online advocacy that gave rise to a more tangible project: creating a fund so students with backgrounds like hers could have a chance at a Hillsdale education.
“The community at Hillsdale College offers vulnerable young people a vision of what it looks like to live out the Gospel and a vision of what family should be,” Petersen said. “I saw it for myself in my professors, the administration, and my close friends. I want every former foster youth to experience that. Foster care can be isolating. Hillsdale College is a place where youth can experience freedom in a safe way.”
She brought her idea up to Danny Drummond ’18, a friend from her college days who now works in the college’s institutional advancement office. Drummond called it “a joy” to help Victoria and her husband, Jacob, create the Fostering the Good Scholarship.
“They had been graduated from Hillsdale for only a year when they reached out to me to begin work on the scholarship,” Drummond said. “They wanted to create an endowed scholarship, which is great because endowed scholarships are invested in the market and will never go away, if managed properly.”
But endowed scholarships require an initial gift of $50,000 — no small feat. The Petersens worked with Drummond and the college’s alumni relations department to create a campaign to crowd-raise the amount. The effort launched in early June and quickly received a number of gifts, but by the end of the month, they still needed to raise $25,000.
Around that time, Petersen wrote an open letter to her alma mater, defending the college as some called on the institution to take a stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She relayed her own experience as a former foster child and Black student at Hillsdale. To Petersen’s surprise, it went viral.
“I just wanted Dr. Arnn and some other of my favorite professors and the administration to read it so they’d be encouraged, because the messages they were receiving were hurtful even to me, mostly because they weren’t true,” she explained. “I mentioned the Fostering the Good Scholarship in that letter and thankfully, a lot of people donated through the link.”
In fact, so many people donated that in the two to three weeks following her letter’s release, her scholarship received more than $35,000 in donations, easily exceeding the $50,000 threshold.
“We couldn’t have predicted what the letter would do to the endowed scholarship,” Jacob Petersen said. “And that speaks to what Tori does. She sees a dark place and she wants to bring light into it. Her intention with the letter was to bring hope to hurting people. She thought about not even posting it and just sending it to some of her favorite faculty. But she wanted it to shine as much light as possible. Being married to Tori is like watching one miracle after the other happen and I love it.”
Just as the Petersens were heartened by the outpouring of support, Drummond expressed gratitude for their efforts on behalf of the institution.
“Never does the college cease to be humbled and grateful for the remarkable generosity of people around the country,” he said. “We are especially grateful when our alumni seek to strengthen our community beyond their student days. The Petersens are doing this, and the impact of their efforts will last for generations.”
Fully funded, the scholarship is now ready for students in need. Petersen’s hope for the scholarship is that it will not only help a former foster child reach their dreams, but also inspire others to put their faith in action.
“If you don’t know what to do, ask yourself, ‘What is the next love thing?’” she said. “And then simply do the next thing in love.”