By Kallie Leonard
Western Michigan University’s Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative has increased care to foster youth in little over a year.
The foster student initiative provides free tuition, full-year campus housing, and other support services to students who have aged out of foster care and do not have a base of support to draw from.
There are similar programs at other universities around the nation, but WMU is home to one of the largest and most extensive.
“WMU has contributed time, energy, money, and a clear message about the role that institutions of higher education can play in supporting youth from foster care,” said Yvonne Unrau, a social work professor who directs the WMU initiative.
According to Unrau, the program received plenty of positive feedback from the community during its first year.
“The community on and off campus responded very favorably. We receive many calls for donations as well as offers for help and volunteering,” she said.
A meeting with other Michigan colleges, universities and foster care agencies was held on May 20 to explore the effects of WMU’s groundbreaking efforts in the program.
“The purpose was to share the WMU experience of starting a program to support college students from foster care and to keep the dialog going about how institutions of higher education in Michigan can respond to the unique needs of students who aged out of foster care,” Unrau said.
Students who had recently completed their first year as Seita Scholars at WMU spoke on their experiences. These are students who have aged out of foster care and have qualified for a special scholarship and support program. The scholarship is named after John Seita, a nationally recognized foster care youth advocate and WMU graduate.
This year, 51 former foster youths are enrolled in the program. To Unrau, this is proof that the program has been a success.
“In the year before the Seita Scholars program, we counted less than a dozen WMU students under the age of 23 who had aged out of foster care,” Unrau said.
According to Unarau, a mere 3 percent of foster students will graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
“At WMU we are learning how to best support these students and work with other institutions to increase these odds,” Unrau said.
Unrau believes that the response to the program suggests that WMU has filled a gap in serving foster youth’s higher educational needs as well as provided an example of how to better serve foster care students.
“The emergence of the Seita Scholars program at WMU has also helped to bring state and national attention to the challenges of young people who grew up in foster care and start their young adult years on their own,” she said.
Currently, there is little research on college‑aged former foster youth.
“The Seita Scholars program is committed to continuing to learn from the students what their needs are, and how best to build a program that is responsive to those needs,” Unrau said.
“We will continue to work toward educating and improving institutional and sate policy and procedure that affects college youth.”
Anyone interested in helping with the program is encouraged to contact the president of Foster Youth and Higher Education at firstname.lastname@example.org.