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Interviews with news makers and discussion of topics important to Southwest Michigan. Subscribe to the podcast through Apple itunes and Google. Segments of interview are heard in WestSouthwest Brief during Morning Edition and All Things Considered

99 College Grads & Counting: WMU's Foster Youth Program

Earlene McMichael | WMUK

Did you know that most foster youth are released from their state's care at age 18? Research shows they become vulnerable to homelessness, and few pursue college. Western Michigan University is changing that. Nearly 10 years ago, it founded the award-winning Seita Scholars Program that's led to 99 students who aged out of the system earning their degrees. This spring, officials say, their 100th participant is expected to graduate. 

On today's WestSouthwest public-affairs show on WMUK, one of the administrators who assisted in developing the model, Ronicka Hamilton, is the guest. She tells Local Morning Edition Host Earlene McMichael about the Seita Scholars Program's impact, current needs and future plans, including her goal to increase the number of its students studying abroad. Hamilton, who was most recently a senior campus coach in the program, was promoted to director effective Jan. 3, taking over from Chris Harris-Wimsatt, who had served for five years. 

That campus coach is the go-to person on campus that really helps students navigate the resources on campus

What program provides

There are 150 students, between ages 17 to 25 years old, enrolled in the program. They are assigned their own campus coaches and sign an agreement to meet regularly with them.

"That campus coach is the go-to person on campus that really helps students navigate the resources on campus and also really kind of teach and build some skill on how to navigate and access those resources on campus," Hamilton says.

Founded in 2008, the Seita Scholars Program is named after John Seita, a Michigan State University social work professor and WMU alum who himself was once in the foster care system. (To enroll, click here.) Hamilton joined the staff in 2009; she was the second campus coach that was hired.

More than 900 of Michigan's foster care youth aged out for the fiscal year that ended September 2013

Hamilton says that those who’ve been in foster care often arrive at college without family to guide them, much less basic things like bedding for a dorm room. That’s because, at age 18, they are "emancipated" from the foster care system – or age out. She says that’s where her program steps in by providing for students’ financial, emotional, academic and basic needs.

This comprehensive model of supports, known as the “Fostering Success” model, has won national recognition. In fact, Western operates the Center for Fostering Success to train others in it. Since 2013, more than 225 professionals from across the country have undergone that training, program officials say. 

Scope of problem

In Michigan, 13,000 children are in foster care at any given time, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. And how many age out in a given year? In excess of 900 did for the fiscal year ending in September 2013, state officials say.

Here’s another sombering statistic. By age 26, only four percent of the nation's youth who age out of foster care had earned a four-year degree -- much less than the 36 percent of youth in the general population, according to the New York City-based Children’s Rights organization that fights for the legal rights of foster care youth. 

Making a difference

The Seita Scholars Program will celebrate its 10-year anniversary next year. Hamilton says about 42 percent of its students graduate from college, higher than the aforementioned national average for youth in the general population.

She adds that it doesn't do it alone. Community members serve as volunteer career coaches, and more are needed, she says.

Also needed every year are new coats, boots, umbrellas, comforters/bedding, towels and personal hygiene products for students, she says. 

(Do you know someone in foster care? Or, are/were you in foster care? Read on.)


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