Skip To Nav

Site-specific menu

Share |

WMU events observe National Foster Care Month

by Jeanne Baron

April 26, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of Cherish L. Thomas.
Cherish L. Thomas
KALAMAZOO--A former foster-care youth will give a free public lecture about succeeding in college as part of Western Michigan University's celebration of National Foster Care Month.

The talk, "Knowing the Differences: Cultivating Achievement for Foster Care Youth in College," will be presented by Cherish L. Thomas from noon to 1:30 p.m. Friday, May 6, on campus in the Fetzer Center's Putney Auditorium.

The presentation by Thomas, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, is intended for a broad campus and community audience to help attendees understand how to work and relate better with young people who are or have been in the foster-care system.

Thomas also will present a by-invitation-only workshop for foster-care youth Friday, May 6, and Saturday, May 7. The half-day workshop, "Finding Myself in Me: From Foster Care to College Scholar" will address questions participants may have about their future and strategies for discovering who they are and who they would like to be.

In addition, WMU is staging an all-day conference Saturday, May 21, for foster parents and teens called "College is Possible: Connecting to Your Dreams." Another by-invitation-only event, it aims to inspire young people living in foster care to plan for college and to help foster parents find ways to encourage and support foster youth so they stay focused on educational goals.

National Foster Care Month shines a light on the experiences of the more than 400,000 children and youth in the foster care system. It raises awareness about the urgent needs of those young people and encourages citizens to get involved as foster or adoptive parents, volunteers, mentors and employers or in other ways.

As part of its observance, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will be spotlighting the WMU Seita Scholars Program. That program is designed for first-time freshmen or transfer students who have aged out of foster care and provides tuition assistance as well as special support to promote student well-being and academic success. Launched in fall 2008, it is the main component of the WMU Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative and is named for John Seita, a WMU alumnus and foster-care recipient who is now a member of Michigan State University's social work faculty and an expert on foster-care youth.

"Research estimates predict that without support, only 10 percent of foster youth aging out of care will enroll in college and less than 5 percent will earn a college degree in six years," says Yvonne Unrau, a WMU professor of social work and founding director of the Seita Scholars Program. "The WMU community really wanted to not only increase the number of foster-care youth who earn career-oriented degrees, but also help these young people find community on campus and successfully transition to careers after college graduation."

Unrau says before launching the Seita Scholars Program, only about a dozen of the 500 youths who age out of foster care annually in Michigan were attending WMU compared to the 108 now enrolled. Since the program's inception, four Seita Scholars have graduated and the program's third-semester retention rate is up more than 80 percent, which means most of the students are on a path to graduate in the next five years.

"WMU officials recognized from the start that foster-care youth who have aged out and enroll in college often have different challenges than the typical student who grew up with biological parents and in a stable household," Unrau says. "These young people have a strength of spirit that has endured despite childhood trauma. But, growing up in foster care is difficult and creates many social and systemic barriers."

For example, she says, foster-care youth learn to be wary of adults, don't accept help typically offered on college campuses, and must interact with multiple bureaucratic systems to meet basic health care and financial needs. They also lack what John Seita calls 'family privilege," so they don't have a family safety net, such as a place to stay on holidays, reliable person to borrow money from, or a person who knows them well and will encourage them through the stressful times of college.

For more information about the WMU Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative, visit or contact Yvonne Unrau at or (269) 387-8346. To learn more about becoming a Volunteer Career Mentor for a WMU Seita Scholar, visit the WMU Alumni Association online.