By Jennifer Bott
The hurdles facing college students who have experienced foster care can be daunting. These students often encounter unique academic, financial, health, and social challenges. Just five percent graduate college nationally and the vast majority never reap the life-changing benefits of a college education as a result.
In 2008, Western Michigan University (WMU) launched the Seita Scholars program to help more of these students reach the finish line with a degree in hand. The effort provides financial and extensive programmatic support to students who lived part or all of their youth in foster care. Named after WMU alumnus Dr. John Seita, the program creates a campus community of scholars working to heal from past experiences and build life and professional skills.
For Seita Scholars, growing up in foster care can create challenges unfamiliar to peers. The program’s staff and peer mentors aim to level the playing field in multiple domains, including academics, finances, physical and mental health, and life skills. Some of the challenges that college students with a foster care history experience include switching high schools more often and being more likely to be behind their grade level; being more likely to have strained finances; increased risk of mental health issues; and increased burden of life responsibilities.
To address these extraordinary needs, the Seita Scholars program employs multiple campus coaches who provide one-on-one life coaching to each scholar. Students work with these coaches throughout their time at WMU to overcome any obstacles they encounter and prepare for life after graduation. The program also creates opportunities for experiences scholars might otherwise not have access to. In the Spring of 2019, several scholars and campus coaches embarked on a backpacking trip with the staff of the Office of Student Engagement. The trip focused on team-building and leadership skills that participants could take with them long after the trip was finished. The university also hosts many events for scholars throughout the year as well as providing care packages for students during breaks.
When asked what other institutions could do to successfully establish a similar program, Dr. Yvonne Unrau, founding director of the program said, “ensuring that students are partners in program decisions, cultivating a wide array of campus and community partners, establishing a fund for emergency resources, and investing in skilled staff (trained coaches). It’s also important to not underestimate the cost of healing child abuse, and the extent to which the program is systematically connected to other services on campus and in the community.”
“The student voice and dedicated trained professional staff are certainly paramount,” added Ronicka Hamilton, the program’s current director. “I would encourage other schools to ensure these components when considering starting a support program for college students with experience in foster care.”
To date, there have been 165 graduates of the program, with another seven students scheduled to graduate this Spring. WMU’s Seita Scholars graduate at a rate of 42 percent, more than eight times the graduation rate for foster youth nationally. Seita Scholars, with the support of the program, have contributed greatly to the WMU community and beyond.
One story of success is Justin Black’s. After coming to WMU as a Seita Scholar in the fall of 2016, Justin immediately immersed himself in student life, seizing leadership opportunities and maximizing his college experience. In order to serve fellow students and encourage them to experience the world, he set to work developing the university’s first multi-country study abroad course. The course will be offered in Kigali, Rwanda, where students will learn the history of Rwandan colonization and the ethnic divide between the Hutus and Tutsis through a series of workshops, community interactions, and discussion-based activities. To complete the experience, students will travel to Kampala, Uganda where they will meet regularly with professors at Cavendish University to discuss Uganda’s climate change issues.
Justin’s story is just one example of the way that the Seita Scholars program has benefitted numerous students – not only those who have received the scholarship, but also the pay-it-forward effect on those whose lives they have impacted. Seita Scholars continue to succeed as a treasured program at WMU, and in turn improve the student experience for many other Broncos who gain from their contributions to the university.
Jennifer Bott is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Western Michigan University.