Former foster kids get a fresh start with Western Michigan University scholarship program

Former foster kids get a fresh start with Western Michigan University scholarship program
by Beth Loechler | The Grand Rapids Press

Monday April 27, 2009, 3:11 PM

Mark Bugnaski | The Kalamazoo GazetteThree Western Michigan University students, from left, Peter "PK" Kuol, 25, Paul Mawut, 24, and Josephine Graham, 19, are part of the John Seita Scholarship Program, which aims to help students who have aged out of the foster care system.

GRAND RAPIDS -- Former foster child Josephine Graham refused to become a statistic, and a Western Michigan University scholarship is helping with that goal.

For much of the past five years, the 19-year-old has bounced from foster home to foster home. She struck out on her own during her senior year at Forest Hills Central High School, graduating last May with the goal of going to college.

But state grants for kids like her who have "aged out" of foster care pick up only a fraction of the cost. And most former foster kids who enter college eventually drop out because they can't track down financial aid or simply aren't prepared for the challenges, according to the state Department of Human Services.

That's where Western Michigan University stepped in.

Graham is one of 40 Seita Scholars at WMU. That is, she is among a group of former foster children receiving full academic scholarships plus peer support and the benefit of a "campus coach."

"And I'm doing awesome," Graham says with a smile.

Likewise for Peter "PK" Kuol and Paul Mawat, two of Sudan's so-called "Lost Boys" who became foster children when they arrived in the U.S. as teenagers in 2000 and 2001. They are Seita Scholars, too.

"This opportunity was too great to be missed," said Kuol, 25, who earned an associate's degree in art from Grand Rapids Community College after graduating from Forest Hills Central in 2004. He is studying chemical and civil engineering at WMU.

"After my bachelor's degree, I want to go to Sudan for a visit. I'd like to work anywhere in Africa or maybe come back here and get a master's degree," Kuol said.

Mawat, who graduated from Kelloggsville High School in 2004 and GRCC in 2006, is studying aviation administration so he can pursue a career in airport management. He also would like to return to Sudan.

"My country is a mess," he said.

The Seita Scholarship is named after Michigan native and former foster child John Seita, who earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from WMU and now trains others to work with disconnected young people. He is an associate professor at Michigan State University.

Graham and her three siblings were removed from their Grand Rapids home when she was 14 because her mother could not properly take care of them, she said. Her mother has since died.

She wants to earn a degree in social work so she can change the foster care system from within.

"Some of the things my siblings had to go through, I don't think caseworkers did the job they needed to do," she said.

At WMU, the scholarships don't cover room and board but can be supplemented by a federal voucher of $4,000 a year for former foster children. Seita scholars also receive help from two full-time social workers who are available 24 hours a day.

"These students come to school with a whole different set of responsibilities and burdens that kids who have families don't have to bother with," said Yvonne Unrau, an associate professor of social work and director of the Seita program.

"They're applying for Medicaid on their own, and they have no one to bail them out if they make a stupid financial decision. We're trying to watch their backs," she said.

WMU kept a dormitory open over Christmas break to accommodate the students who had nowhere to go.

The program began last fall, about 18 months after the state convened higher ed administrators and asked for help putting foster children through college.

Other colleges have initiated programs but none as large as WMU's, which accepted students from throughout the state. Ten come from Kent County.

Aquinas College in Grand Rapids will be awarding two full scholarships for former foster kids beginning this fall. It plans to announce the recipients this week.

Like WMU, Aquinas will absorb the cost of the scholarships -- they are valued at $30,000 each at Aquinas and $7,220 each at WMU -- but is looking for sponsors and donors to help cover the costs, said Dean of Admissions Tom Mikowski.

"This is a good mission for Aquinas, as a Dominican college," he said.

WMU began the year with 52 Seita scholars and ends it with 40.

"It was not a good fit for some people," said office assistant Jamie Crandell. Some students departed because of health problems or because they couldn't keep up academically.

"For them, our No. 1 priority is making sure they have resources when they leave and making sure they are aware that they can come back," she said.

Dropping out isn't an option for Graham, however.

"I want to get my master's eventually," she said.

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