by Robin Erb,
Detroit Free Press, September 22, 2008
Perhaps it should have been an odd feeling -- being delivered to
your freshman year at college by a caseworker rather than
No matter, said Mike Baker. He had other things on his mind.
"Oh my gosh, it's amazing," said the 18-year-old communications
major and former foster child from Macomb County. "It's totally,
totally different from high school. Nobody's holding your
The Western Michigan University freshman paused, then laughed.
"And I mean, I've gone through life without somebody holding my
Baker, who aged out of Michigan's foster care system without
being adopted, is part of a program for former foster kids
that's one-of-a-kind in the state, and possibly the nation.
WMU's Seita Scholars initiative not only offers an essentially
free education, but also services, such as mentoring and peer
WMU announced the program last year. Organizers expected about
12 students this year. Instead, they have 51, said Yvonne Unrau,
an associate professor in social work who coordinates the
The 27 women and 24 men were legally separated from their
parents, often because of abuse or neglect. Some have been
homeless. All face daunting odds of sticking it out for four
Studies estimate that only 3% to 15% of foster youths who age
out of the system ever finish college -- about half the rate of
the general population. That's in large part because most have
no one to consult when they stumble on life's speed bumps --
financial-aid glitches, a broken-down car, a particularly
difficult class, even roommate issues.
Many also have gaps in education, having transferred from school
to school, often focused on survival and family issues rather
than study skills, said Peter Pecora, a researcher at the
University of Washington in Seattle and the Casey Family
Foundation, a national advocacy group for youths in foster care.
Donations from the community provided each Seita scholar with a
laundry bag and the basics for dorm life -- a comforter, towels,
soap, a shower caddy.
But more important for a group of young men and women who have
spent much of their lives herded by an impersonal child welfare
system, there is a ready-made community at this Kalamazoo
campus. In addition to the mentoring, most of the scholars live
together at one of two residence halls.
The transition to college is tough for anybody, let alone a
teenager without a mom or dad a phone call away, said Sophia
Carter, 18, of Grand Rapids.
She's one of nine students taking classes as a Seita scholar at
Kalamazoo Valley Community College, a partner in the program.
The unexpected camaraderie of young adults with a similar past
comforted her during the transition to college. "It's
confirmation that I was not alone," she said.
The program is named after John Seita, a WMU alum who grew up in
the foster care system and now is a social work researcher at
Michigan State University. He often talks about sneaking into
dormitories during school breaks because -- unlike other
students -- he had nowhere else to go.
Required tuition and fees for a full-time freshman or sophomore
are $7,928 per year; a residence hall room and board package is
about $7,377. Still, it's unclear how much the Seita Scholars
program will cost the university, because some tuition will be
covered by student loans and other financial aid.
WMU President John Dunn said he's behind the program. "Are these
potential risks we assume? Yes, but if not us, who?" he said.
"The goal of education is to make sure that it's open for all
For her part, Unrau said she's not worried about the scholars:
"They have this amazing amount of human spirit."
For more information on the scholarships or to donate, visit
www.wmich.edu/fyit/scholarship.html or contact the Foster
Youth and Higher Education Initiative at 269-387-8362 or
Contact ROBIN ERB at 313-222-2708 or
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