Scholarships support program for foster-care youth
Jan. 18, 2008
KALAMAZOO--The members of one of the nation's most underserved college-age populations will get help making their higher education dreams come true, thanks to a new scholarship and support initiative being launched at Western Michigan University this fall.
WMU's Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative is an effort being launched in coordination with the Michigan Campus Compact and the Michigan Department of Human Services. The pilot program is designed to recruit and offer a support structure and financial aid for young people who have aged out of foster care and who qualify for admission or transfer to WMU. While the intent is to target Michigan's foster care youth, the program is open to qualified students from any state.
The initiative will create a community of scholars among WMU students who grew up in foster care and will attempt to fill the unique support needs that exist for the students who have no adult mentors and no permanent home outside their college residence and who have specialized legal, medical, counseling and financial needs. The goal will be to help foster youth, who age out of care between the ages of 18 and 20, make the transition to adulthood through higher education.
"We cannot, as a society, afford to lose the potential these young people represent," says WMU President John M. Dunn. "At Western Michigan University, we are passionate about insuring that no segment of our society is kept from having access to higher education. This University, with its broad range of programs, excellent faculty and strong support systems is well positioned to make success for these young people a reality."
Michigan Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed applauds WMU's commitment to foster youths.
"Programs like this one are essential to improve outcomes," he said. "The University's leadership is the model for other institutions to provide the support and resources foster youths need to lead productive lives."
Chief among the tools WMU will use to support foster youth is the John Seita Scholarship, named for a three-time WMU alumnus who grew up in foster care and has become one of the nation's foremost experts on and advocates for foster youth. Seita, who has published extensively on the topics of foster care and youth development and whose background includes work with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is being honored this month with the 2007 Ruth Massing Foster Care Alumni Award through Casey Family programs--an offshoot of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Only one foster care alumni a year is selected in the United States.
The Seita Scholarship will provide foster youth aging out of care with undergraduate tuition. Recipients will be required to live on campus, and year-round, on-campus housing will be available, thus providing students with the stability of knowing they have a roof over their heads even during semester breaks.
Seita, now an associate professor of social work at Michigan State University, says people unfamiliar with the plight of former foster youth, often underestimate the importance of housing stability for a student trying to pursue a college degree. Before he became a student at WMU, Seita briefly attended a small Michigan liberal arts college. When his fellow students went home for the holidays, he had no place to go. When college administrators could offer him no assistance, he spent his holiday recess sneaking in and out of a residence hall and scrambling to find a way to eat.
Other tools in WMU's foster care initiative will include:
In addition, a support network on the campus and in the Kalamazoo community will be constructed and include professionals in the areas of career planning, mentoring, tutoring, counseling and legal services. Support services may also include providing the students with an opportunity to catch up on such life skills as banking, budgeting and time management.
Annually, more than 500 young people age out of Michigan's foster care system. Nationally, the figure is about 20,000.While 70 percent aspire to go to college, only about 20 percent actually enroll and only a quarter of those students go on to earn a degree. That compares to a national college attendance figure for college-age youth of about 67 percent.
In addition to their financial and housing problems, a number of other issues come into play with former foster students. Foster care youth, for instance, frequently lack adult encouragement and role models and often are unfamiliar with college and career options.
"There is a whole set of characteristics and a comfort level that most children acquire through what I call 'family privilege,''' Seita says. "It's something children in traditional families never even think about, but foster kids just never have the opportunity to acquire those traits."
The Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative is an outgrowth of a statewide summit in April 2007 in which WMU joined with representatives from colleges and state agencies to begin assessing the situation and begin post-secondary planning for Michigan's foster care population. Planning for the WMU program accelerated in the fall of 2007 with the support of WMU's new president, Dunn. A student advisory group made up of current WMU students who formerly lived in foster care is assisting with the planning effort.
First-time freshmen or transfer students who were in foster care or were wards of the state at the time of their high school graduation are eligible to apply for WMU's John Seita Scholarship. Recipients must meet WMU's admission requirements, complete the University's admissions process, fill out a federal financial aid form each year, live on campus and agree to a basic set of conditions that will include maintaining a minimum GPA and taking part in academic support programs such as First Year Experience.
Additional information on how the program will work is available by contacting one of WMU's three principal planners: Penny Bundy, director of admissions, at (269) 387-2000; Mark Delorey, director of financial aid and scholarships, at (269) 387-6037; or Dr. Yvonne Unrau, associate professor of social work, at (269) 387-3185. John Seita, for whom the scholarship is named, can be reached at (269) 501-5487.
Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, firstname.lastname@example.org