For Former Foster Kids, Campus Is Their 'Home for the Holidays'

For Former Foster Kids, Campus Is Their 'Home for the Holidays'
January 8, 2012/The Chronicle

By Don Troop

John R. Seita was an abused and neglected 8-year-old back in 1963 when the State of Michigan pulled him from his home and placed him in foster care. But his most terrifying experience came a decade later, he says, when he turned 18 and was sent out to fend for himself.

Neither his former orphanage nor the state foster-care system helped him through the transition. "There was kind of this sense that, You're on your own—good luck," recalls Mr. Seita, today an associate professor in Michigan State University's School of Social Work.

He enrolled at Olivet College and moved into a residence hall there. But as the fall term wound down, he worried that he would soon be homeless. He approached the dean and explained his dilemma: "I have no place to go over break. Can I stay in the dorms?"

"No, you may not," came the reply.

Foster kids are nothing if not resourceful. After classes ended, Mr. Seita sneaked back into his dorm and spent the entire break there, moving quietly through the lonely halls and slipping out each night to swipe food from a local supermarket. "I didn't want to sleep under a bush," he says drily.

How times—and circumstances—have changed since 1974.

Western Michigan University, here in Kalamazoo, is home to an innovative and rapidly expanding program that helps youths who were raised in foster care earn their diplomas without having to shoplift or trespass over the holidays. Indeed, many of the students have comfortable apartments on the campus, and a hall was kept open over the holiday break for dorm residents who needed a place to stay. Daily hot meals, movie and museum outings, and a road trip to see Western Michigan's bowl game in Detroit were all part of the deal.

A Bridge to Independence
Programs to assist students exiting foster care are taking off around the country, says John C. Emerson, a postsecondary-education manager with Casey Family Programs, a foundation that supports such efforts. California State University at Fullerton was the pioneer, he says, starting its Guardian Scholars program in 1998. Seven states now hold annual conferences to encourage collaboration between colleges and the agencies that serve foster youth: California, Connecticut, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

Mr. Emerson says 2008 was a pivotal year for the movement nationally. That was when the Higher Education Opportunity Act authorized a number of new programs and legal changes to meet the unique needs of students as they age out of foster care.

It was also, coincidentally, the year that Western Michigan inaugurated its John Seita Scholars Program, named for the dorm-squatting college student, who left Olivet after his sophomore year. He resumed his studies three years later at Western, eventually earning his doctoral degree there.

Mr. Seita went on to write four books about foster care, drawing on his own experience passing through the system. He was also a featured speaker at a 2007 conference on foster students in higher education that inspired Western Michigan's program.

Yvonne A. Unrau, founding director of the Seita Scholars Program, says she set a "wildly optimistic" goal of 15 students in the first cohort. Instead, 51 showed up in an eight-hour period. Some were dropped off by their caseworkers. Others phoned for directions from the train station. A few showed up with their clothes in trash bags.

"It was craa-zy," recalls Ms. Unrau.

In retrospect, the enthusiastic response was unsurprising, given the depth of need. A 2003 survey by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that 70 percent of teenagers in foster care want to attend college. But only about 9 percent obtain postsecondary degrees of any kind, Casey Family Programs reports.

John Seita's research into how life turns out for foster-care alumni such as himself was even more dispiriting. "I started realizing that most of us not only struggled, but we didn't make it," he says. "We ended up homeless, and in jail, and in debt."

Helicopter Coaches
Western Michigan's program is trying to reverse those trends using a mix of trained student leaders and surrogate helicopter parents, called "campus coaches." Seita scholars get full tuition from Western Michigan's general scholarship fund, with this year's program costing the university $1.3-million to $1.4-million, says Mark Delorey, director of financial aid. Pell Grants, worth as much as $5,550, along with Chafee Education and Training Voucher assistance, or ETV funds, of $5,000, generally cover housing and book costs, although students are sometimes required to take out modest loans.

The Seita program also offers scholarships to students from abroad, with Refugee Education Voucher assistance, or REV funds, also $5,000, replacing the ETV money. Both ETV and REV funds, however, expire for students over 23.

In addition, the Michigan Department of Human Services has placed an employee in the Seita office to coordinate state grant monies and to act as an in-house caseworker for students who are still in the foster-care system. The state will add a second employee there early this year.

The program's current 141 students are expected to live on campus, keep their grades up, and check in regularly with their campus coaches, either in person or by text message. The coaches are paid to keep tabs on such things as academic performance and behavior, and they intervene as needed.

"We have a pretty tight and comprehensive system of support," says Ms. Unrau, who stepped into a new post this month directing an outgrowth of Seita called Fostering Success: Center for Foster Youth and Higher Education Studies. The $1-million center, supported largely by a grant from the Kresge Foundation, will conduct applied research on college programs for foster youth and develop a statewide network of such programs to share ideas.

Of Western Michigan's program, she says, "there's an opportunity for students here not just to get to college and be in college, but to actually transform their lives."

A Fresh Start
She points to students like Carlos Daniels, a 23-year-old junior who lights up as he shows off a clever YouTube video that he created for a sustainability-themed campus contest. A powerfully built man who started as a freshman guard on his high-school basketball team, Mr. Daniels spent the summer of his 18th year living on the streets. Later he became a drug middleman, he says, bringing in $1,000 or more every couple of nights.

"There were times I was coming down the highway with a kilo of cocaine," he says. "That was 30 years to life, easy, if I got caught."

Mr. Daniels says his conscience eventually got the better of him. "I just kept thinking about the families I was destroying."

He had learned about Seita a couple of years earlier from "Dr. Yvonne," as the scholars call Ms. Unrau, so he got back in touch with her last summer. She squeezed him into the program in July, and he's already become a regular speaker at Seita outreach events.

Over the holidays, Mr. Daniels paid visits to some family members and friends in Detroit and Albion, Mich., then planned to return home and spend the rest of the break holed up in his apartment reading some long-neglected books.

Another new Seita scholar is Kyle Heynan, who can only guess how old he was when first placed in foster care—maybe 4 or 5. "I was taken from my mom because she drank too much," he says. "Then I was placed with my sister's dad, and he was a drug addict." He and his sister drifted through foster homes until a family adopted them when he was 12. About three years ago, he says, he was removed from that home "due to something that I did that I shouldn't have, dealing with the courts."

Two years ago he sought out his biological father, a man who had left the picture when Mr. Heynan was just 6 because of questions about the boy's paternity. At 6 feet tall, Mr. Heynan never believed that he shared the same genes with his 5-foot-6 stepfather. His birth father, Mr. Heynan says, is a 6-foot-2 truck driver with a big, red Irish beard. "I find him a cool guy."

Over Christmas father and son were to take their first road trip together, a long haul to California in an 18-wheeler.

Tolanda Hall, 18, is a first-year Seita scholar from Detroit who was taken from her home at age 13 because of abuse. Six homes later she crossed into adulthood and headed to college. "I don't think any of my foster parents liked me," she says evenly. She's happy to be at Western, where she majors in fashion design, even though she desperately misses her nieces and nephews. "I feel like I abandoned them the way my mom abandoned me," she says.

On Christmas night, Ms. Hall excitedly describes how she and several other Seita scholars left Western's campus to enjoy a holiday dinner with a group of high-school girls at their foster home in Kalamazoo. The students had decorated and personalized ornaments for the girls, who responded with gifts of their own. Over a Christmas dinner of homemade turkey, dressing, Southern fixings, and dessert—prepared by the mother of a Seita coach—the girls asked about college and how to pay for it. Later the group played Guesstures, a high-speed game of charades, then headed out to the movies.

John Seita spent Christmas at home with his wife and daughter. He still laughs about the day Ms. Unrau called to tell him of the plan to name the program for him. "The only people who get things named for them are the rich and the dead," he told her. "I'm neither."

But as he weighed the power of role modeling and authentic experience, he gradually warmed to the idea.

"Sure," he said. "Go ahead."