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Western Michigan University Helps ex-Foster Kids with College; Program Provides Money and Support

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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 parents.

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 hands."

The Western Michigan University freshman paused, then laughed. "And I mean, I've gone through life without somebody holding my hand."

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 support.
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 program.

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 years.

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 citizens."

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 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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