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Courtesy of Western Michigan University
Former foster-care students at Western Michigan University wear their robes on commencement day 2012. WMU President John Dunn is on the right.
The hardest part was growing up separated from my brother and sister. I internalized all of it. On paper everything looked fine, but I still had a lot of emotional needs that weren’t addressed until I came to college. —Courtney Maher

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — New students typically arrive for Western Michigan University’s move-in day in parents’ cars stuffed with clothing, books and computer gear. Some cars pull trailers filled with appliances and furniture.

Contrast that with another sight seen on such days: a plain car with a Michigan state decal pulls up just long enough for a new college freshman to step out. He carries a black garbage bag that holds everything he owns. He’s just aged out of the foster-care system and is all on his own.

“The black garbage bag is like the official luggage of the foster-care system,” said Linda Dunn, wife of WMU President John M. Dunn and a member of Michigan’s Foster Care Review Board.

The paucity of possessions owned by students who age out of the foster-care system echoes another kind of gap in privilege, Dunn said. Students from stable families typically attend college buoyed by parental encouragement, advice, financial help, emotional support and attention to health care. Foster-care students often lack those things, making college success less likely. At WMU, though, efforts are underway to level the playing field for students from foster care, a group increasingly recognized as an underserved segment of the U.S. population.

Bleak statistics

In most states, kids in foster care who don’t have permanent families are legally emancipated at age 18. Though some states have programs that offer transitional aid, the basic expectation is that these teenagers will fend for themselves in an adult world. For many, such early independence doesn’t go well.

Teens who age out of foster care are at high risk of homelessness, joblessness, illness, incarceration, welfare dependency, early childbearing and physical and sexual victimization, according to Children’s Rights, a national children’s advocacy group that collated results of various studies and surveys from around the nation.

Only about 7 to 13 percent of students from foster care ever go to college. Only about 2 percent graduate, compared to 24 percent of adults in the general population, according to research from Casey Family Programs, a charitable foundation working to improve the lives of children in foster care.

Beating the odds

Courtney Maher doesn't want her life to follow that pattern. Maher, almost 21, is an articulate young woman who will graduate from WMU next April and go straight into a master’s degree program in social work. But Maher was once a hungry, neglected child, removed by the state of Michigan from her violent, drug-addicted parents and placed in foster care. Maher knows her college success beat the odds. She credits a groundbreaking program at WMU for smoothing her way.

The Seita Scholars program provided Maher with counseling, emotional support and valuable work opportunities, along with financial assistance and life skills training. The program is named after John Seita, a former WMU professor who aged out of foster care after 15 different placements and went on to become a professor of social work.

“Western Michigan has an incredibly comprehensive program for former foster-care youth,” said John Emerson of Casey Family Programs, adding that the Seita Scholars program leads the nation in helping former foster-care students succeed in college.

The Seita program provides assistance for WMU students who were in foster care on or after their 14th birthdays. Those who qualify receive financial aid and one-on-one coaching to help them navigate through the challenges of college life. Coaching also helps the students cut through red tape between the foster-care system, Medicaid, community mental health care and other public support systems, said program director Chris Harris.

The 5-year-old program serves 160 students from 35 Michigan counties. Programs at such schools as California State University Fullerton and Austin Community College follow similar formats, though they are less comprehensive. All of the programs are based on a framework developed by Casey Family Programs.

Life skills

At WMU, community volunteers teach Seita students how to budget for their weekly expenses and create a financial plan for the years ahead. Counselors help each student chart out a feasible academic plan that leads to a degree. Career counselors help students find resume-boosting internships during summer breaks and jobs when they graduate.

Emergency loans are available through the program to help Seita Scholars deal with unexpected expenses, like a car repair, without having to drop out of college. In brief, the program strives to do what families do.

“The coaches help with anything you need that you might go to a parent for,” Maher said, “like if you needed to know how to open a bank account, or how to look for a job. There are a lot of basic things our students haven’t had opportunity to learn because they were focusing on survival.”

Many students from foster care have no permanent home, so housing is a critical piece of WMU’s program. A dormitory is kept open through school holidays and summer breaks for students who have nowhere else to go, and group meals and activities are held on Christmas, Thanksgiving Day and other holidays.

“The other people in the program kind of become family for a lot of students who don’t have a home to go back to,” Maher said.

Education first

Educational attainment is the central goal of the Seita program. Extra tutoring is provided for students who need it. It’s not uncommon for foster-care students to arrive at college with academic deficits that need remediation, said Emerson.

Through connections in the Kalamazoo, Mich., community, students are connected with internships and employment opportunities related to their fields of study, giving them resume-worthy experience that helps with future job searches.

Past sorrows

For Maher, though, the most important help she received as a Seita Scholar was mental health counseling that helped her move beyond the buried trauma of her family’s collapse.

“There was a lot of anger and sadness, just a feeling of hopelessness,” Maher said. “The hardest part was growing up separated from my brother and sister. I internalized all of it. On paper everything looked fine, but I still had a lot of emotional needs that weren’t addressed until I came to college.”

Chris Harris, who heads up WMU’s Seita Scholars program, said that though many of his students have survived harrowing experiences, the program doesn’t dwell on the past. Its emphasis is on moving forward, learning to deal with difficulties and accessing available resources, he said.

Brighter future

About 20 states offer college tuition waivers or assistance to students who were formerly in foster care. That’s critical, Emerson said, but so are supplemental supports in the form of coaching and career counseling from a trusted person. In that regard, WMU’s program stands above the crowd nationally, he said. The coaches are paid by the college and use a case management approach to deal with students’ needs.

WMU received grants from Michigan’s Legislature to help fund the program, and its model is being considered for expansion to other colleges in the state. A program at Austin Community College has no primary funding and operates through volunteers and existing funding streams, Emerson said.

There is evidence to suggest that money devoted to improving life outcomes for students from foster care is well spent. Data compiled by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative shows that on average, for every young person who ages out of foster care, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs over that person’s lifetime for public assistance, incarceration and wages lost as a result of low educational attainment.

Maher won’t be adding to those costs; she will be working to reduce them, in part because of support she received through the Seita program.

“Now I want to make sure nobody else has to go through what I went through,” Maher said. “I would love to help further the idea of college support for foster youth. The biggest thing Seita did for me is open that door and help me realize this is what I want to do with my life. It has provided me with opportunities I wouldn’t even have fathomed.”

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