Growing up in Flint, Michigan and being a part of the foster care system from age 13 until I aged out at 21 created unique challenges and perspectives. At the end of seventh grade, I was placed in my aunt and uncle’s home, forcing me to change schools. This move put me at my ninth school, and in high school that count went up to 10.
Students need access to funds and awareness of why a college education is important if his/her parents or their peers are not going to college. Because of circumstances like this, only about 3 percent of foster youth graduate from college.
Fostering Success Michigan compiled information on which four-year colleges have campus-based support programs for students who experienced foster care, creating the National Postsecondary Support Map. As the map shows, more than half the four-year institutions and/or states are failing current and prospective students who have been in or are in foster care by not providing assistance and access to higher education.
Michigan one of the best
Admittedly, no one would like to grow up in foster care, but I am blessed that I was in foster care in Michigan, a state that has championed access to and support for a successful higher education experience. Although there is a lot more work to do in Michigan and California (the states with the most four-year institutions with established programs to assist foster youth), most other states are not providing essential access and resources.
This is why I decided it was necessary to do something about that miniscule percentage of help and the barriers blocking foster youth from pursuing higher education. I started my own business, The Scholarship Expert. I realized that finances can present a barrier to students receiving the best education possible. The Scholarship Expert enables me to help students access needed funds. This proves that colleges or universities may need to bring in additional personnel to help in these initiatives.
Campus coach hugely helpful
Unfortunately, I have seen that the success of foster youth is largely dependent on their self-advocacy and the dedication of their social worker. As a result, many foster youth are not getting the resources needed to lead a successful, healthy life. Although it is not a direct responsibility of universities to accommodate these students, universities are missing out on the opportunity to educate and step in.
Being a Seita Scholar at Western Michigan University, I have seen the power of what access to an education can do. Once I joined the Seita Scholars Program, I was assigned to a campus coach who is now my go-to person for navigating the higher education processes, such as financial aid and registering for classes, as well as someone who is there for me to celebrate my triumphs and support me through my struggles. Having a campus coach allows you to focus on being a student and alleviates the unnecessary stresses that deter many foster youth from pursuing and completing higher education.
The Seita Scholars program is working to create a community with lasting relationships. Creating and fostering these relationships are critical to one’s academic and personal development. Because of this, students must live on campus and take part in the Summer Early Transition Week. During this week, we locate all our classes and participate in community-building activities.
When I first transferred to WMU, I chose to not join the program because I wanted to live off campus. From the beginning, I was lost and missed all my classes on the first day because I could not find them. If I had been part of this program from my first day at Western, I would have had more confidence in how to navigate the campus, its student organization and processes.
One of the most important aspects of the Seita Scholars program is the fact that we are guaranteed year-round housing. For students like myself who didn’t have stability growing up, and having to transition into 10 different schools, I was able to call WMU my home without the concern of having to leave and find someplace to live during breaks. Some students, without this opportunity, would be faced with homelessness.
This is not a new discovery. Time and again universities are reminded of this simple fact and still do not provide something so basic for youth. Organizations like the Park West Foundation’s Blue Babies initiative has worked to bridge this gap by providing hotel rooms for these youth as well as college preparation over the breaks. Keeping youth focused and productive over these breaks helps with depression and consistency with working toward their future.
This same organization has developed a career fair specifically for foster youth called “Jump Shot Your Future.” This year, they partnered with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit for the venue. This was important because there is a much higher rate of people of color in foster care than white people. Higher education institutions are more than capable of establishing statewide college or career fairs specifically for youth that are or were in care.
When developing programs at a college or university, make sure to consider things like providing care packages to help furnish the dorm that parents would typically provide (bedding, laundry detergent, towels, laundry basket, snacks, etc.). Besides this, having someone help you move is critical since youth may not have their own transportation. Western Michigan University has worked to make transportation free for students within the city of Kalamazoo. Again, this is exceedingly important for independence and overall access (job off campus, grocery shopping, health care facility, etc.).
I do understand that there are numerous community colleges that offer services for current or former foster youth, which is incredibly important. However, for multiple states to not even offer resources for foster youth to have access to a quality education such as a college or university is astounding. With the number of foster youth entering care increasing each year because of causes like the opioid epidemic, colleges and universities should be under more pressure to create ways and means of youth accessing their services.
Since I can only speak from experience, the Seita Scholars Program has been far more than just a scholarship to me. This program has encouraged me to pursue big and bold dreams and has helped me map out what that looks like. Knowledge is power, and it cannot be taken away from someone. That is why empowering youth through resources such as year-round housing, a campus coach and networking opportunities are critical for personal and professional development.
Alexis Lenderman is a student at Western Michigan University working toward dual degrees in entrepreneurship and global and international studies with minors in nonprofit leadership and political science. She is a Seita Scholar as well as a Nsoro Scholar.