College of Arts and Sciences staff writer
Dr. Linda Borish first met Emmanuel Sanchez, a junior, in September 2013. He is an aviation major, and she is an American history professor at Western Michigan University. These two unlikely friends got to know each other through the Seita Scholars program.
The program is a component of the Center for Fostering Success. It supports students at WMU ages 18 to 25 who have lived at least some or all of their teenage years in foster care; some of the Scholars were taken into the custody of the State at earlier ages. While each student’s foster care experience is unique, all the Seita Scholars share common challenges associated aging out of foster care and transitioning to college.
As Sanchez's mentor, Borish meets with him and together they talk about academic work, career interests, opportunities for internships, classes to take and ways to navigate the college system.
Borish decided to get involved with the Seita Scholars Program because she herself was mentored as a Skidmore College undergraduate and as a University of Maryland graduate student and found the experience of being mentored valuable.
“Students need to be courageous and seek opportunities,” she said, “but they need a little help because they don't know how to navigate the complex territory of higher education, especially if they are the first ones in their families to go to college.”
For example, Sanchez had an opportunity to become a resident assistant. He went to Borish to talk about it and she advised him to consider whether he had enough time to do this in addition to his job in the library.
Borish finds mentoring Sanchez a very humbling experience because it keeps in perspective the opportunities she has had compared to students with a foster care background who are just getting started in college.
“Working with Emmanuel over a period of time has allowed me to see his growth as a student and as an individual,” she said. “It's a unique experience to see another side of the academic community, a more personal side that doesn't involve grades and critiques.”
Mentors and Seita Scholars typically spend four hours per month with some of the time in person and some of it over e-mail, text or telephone.
“The other day Emmanuel asked if he could put my photo on Facebook,” she said. “That meant a lot to me about the importance of our bond, and that I was helping him.”
Sanchez finds Borish a big source of support.
“Dr. Linda has always been there for me,” said Sanchez, “and I am very thankful to have her as my mentor. She has always given me advice and shown me that she believes in me. I truly appreciate her time and effort to guide me in college.”
Every fall President Dunn welcomes all Seita Scholars back to campus at annual event titled the President’s Welcome. This year, Seita Scholar alumni shared how mentoring benefited them. Each first year Seita Scholar then accompanied the alum’s testimony with messages on a placard like “I am hard working” and “I am smart.”
“It was very moving to me,” said Borish.
CAS Assistant Dean James Cousins also attended the Annual Dinner and was duly impressed.
“I hope more faculty find the time to mentor a Seita Scholar,” he said. “This program provides students with a unique opportunity and a great support network that can not only help them succeed at WMU, but give them lasting friendships. That's an important amenity college can give.”
The scholarship is named after Dr. John Seita, a three-time alumnus of WMU who spent 15 years in foster care. It is a tuition scholarship offered to fall semester admits to WMU and is renewable each semester up to completion of the undergraduate degree. The scholarship is one key component of the Seita Scholars Program. The first class of Seita Scholars entered WMU in fall 2008.
“The 2008 Cohort of Seita Scholars persistence to graduation from WMU exceeds 39 percent compared to the national average of only 2 to 4 percent of the 25,000 aging out of the foster care system on an annual basis,” said Chris Harris director of Seita at WMU. “Having our Seita Scholars paired with mentors highly increases their chance of degree completion, which leads to employment. That’s the central goal of our program.”
Harris added that a wide array of campus and community partners work to fund and support the Seita Scholars, including during holidays when the residence halls are closed. Many Scholars' homes are too far away for them to go there or they don't have a place to go for a traditional family celebration. The program coordinates students’ housing and at least one hot meal a day during WMU’s winter closure.
Each class forms a cohort that learns skills together through participation in a wide variety of on- and off-campus activities in order to build opportunities for their future. Older cohorts assist newer cohorts.
This fall there are 47 new Seita Scholars plus four returning students who had previously stopped out, which brings the total to 151 students currently enrolled at WMU and working on their undergraduate degrees.
Activities are planned for scholars to meet as a group and share ideas. Among the typical activities are bowling and pizza, a night at the Alamo Drafthouse and a trip to Chicago.
“I am thankful to be a part of a great community that focuses on the importance of education for the students,” said Sanchez. “To me, the Seita program is all about support and inspiration. I believe that the Seita program works hard to walk with me during my years at Western Michigan University. It makes me feel more confident about overcoming some of the obstacles I face as a foster student.”
The Seita Scholars program is always looking for mentors, volunteers and budget advisers. Faculty and staff who are interested should call the Seita Scholars office at 387-8344.