A Detroit foster child considered suicide. Then Western Michigan called.

Western Michigan University student Antwinae McNeil: “It was just like, ‘Now I have a reason to live and live to fight another day.’” (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

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KALAMAZOO — Not too long ago, Antwinae McNeil was living in a Detroit shelter for teenage girls, wondering if she had a future.

Removed from an abusive home at age 15, she later learned as a student at Chandler Park Academy High School about a scholarship program at Western Michigan University for students in foster care. She applied.

The day she found out she was accepted told her she did indeed have a reason to go on.  

“When I say the words that this program saved my life, I mean that literally,” McNeil said. 

Related: How Michigan shortchanges 13,000 foster children facing life as adults

“The same day that I got a phone call saying I was accepted, I had made a plan at the end of the day I was going to end my life. It was just like, ‘Now I have a reason to live and live to fight another day.’”

Now a junior at WMU in its Seita Scholars program, McNeil is proud to be on track to graduate in 2021 — and join the ranks of dozens of scholars like herself.

Since the scholarship program launched in 2008, 166 students who grew up in foster care have earned four-year degrees at WMU, according to program director Ronicka Hamilton. Of those who enter, Hamilton said, about 30 percent graduate.

While that may not sound notable, it’s far better than national estimates that 3 to 11 percent of foster care alumni graduate college.

“These students come from backgrounds where they had multiple school changes, multiple different elementary schools and high schools,” Hamilton said.

“And then there is the mental health component. Students manage that differently all across the continuum. By the time some of them get here, they are just tired at having to try to survive.

“They are exhausted, burned out.”

WMU campus coach Lakeyla Whitaker called Antwinae McNeil every day the summer before McNeil began college, making sure the teen was prepared for university life after years of foster care and homelessness. “With her, you know no matter what happens you have somebody on your side,” McNeil said. “She is like superwoman.” 

Students can earn upward of $13,000 a year in scholarship money, with a goal that they graduate college debt free. The program has received support from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, foundations and private donations but is largely funded through the university’s general fund. It’s named to honor Dr. John Seita, a WMU alumnus and national advocate for foster care youth.

But even with that scholarship incentive, program staff learned over time why students from foster care are at greater risk of dropping out than the general student population. Some struggle with the rigors of college-level work because of sketchy high school preparation. Many grapple with a range of mental health issues that follow them from foster care.

Seita Scholars are each assigned a campus coach, who can be everything from a shoulder to lean to a source of encouragement after a bad test score. Coaches keep in touch with students in regular face-to-face meetings and by email, text — whatever it takes.

“It’s having that connection, that recognition there is somebody you can go to for your troubles but also to celebrate your triumphs,” Hamilton said.

Former Detroit shelter resident McNeil said she learned even before she arrived on campus that her coach, Lakeyla Whitaker, had her back.

“Through the summer, she would call me every single day to make sure I had everything I needed to be ready for college.

“With her, you know no matter what happens you have somebody on your side. She is like superwoman. She will say, ‘I will call you at 7 o’clock.’ And she will call me not at 6:59 or 7:01 but she will call me right on the dime. She holds me accountable.”

McNeil said Whitaker’s steadying role has meant a lot, given that she still has episodes of anxiety and PTSD stemming her from her years in foster care and homelessness after she was removed from her mother’s house. She counts 15 different foster care placements and seven times she was homeless over the period before she entered college. She still sees a therapist from the Seita program twice a week.

“With PTSD, it’s like living it all over again,” McNeil said.

During her seven years as a coach, Whitaker said she’s learned that support at a critical time can make all the difference.

She recalled another student who months ago found herself depressed, oversleeping and missing classes. Whitaker jumped on the problem, referring the student to one of the program’s therapists. Over several months, they met weekly in an office where the program is centered.

“It helped her learn how to access and deal with her depression. She texted me later – she aced her final. She made the dean’s list this semester,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker is also big on little boosts of confidence that she believes can steer a wavering student in the right direction. Each semester on the eve of final exams, she sends out a text to the two dozen students in her charge.

Her message last semester: “’Don’t give up when you still have something to give. Nothing is really over until the moment you stop trying.’”

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Fri, 01/03/2020 - 2:23pm

Awesome program!! Great job to WMU, Lakeyla, and Antwinae!

Fri, 01/03/2020 - 2:30pm

I'll be political for one moment... This program could be considered affirmative action. BUT this 15 year old would be dead without the program. She needed to know someone cared AND would be willing to give resources to back it up. Now she is succeeding! If someone opposes this program, please ask yourself why you would prefer a dead 15 year old over one that is thriving?!

Summer Adams
Fri, 01/03/2020 - 9:16pm

Congratulations! Thank you Lord! He saved u.

Richard Cole
Fri, 01/03/2020 - 9:15pm

Great article on a great program. My friend attorney Gary Spicer and I had a chance to visit the program last month and we were so knocked out by these wonderful resilient young people in the program that we are setting up an endowment to help my alma mater serve more “kids” who are aging out of the foster-care system. I discovered the WMU program while doing a search with Gary on best practices in helping foster kids move into productive and happy lives. Low and behold some helpful professionals in the state social services agencies told me we have a national model —a diamond in our own backyard — in Kalamazoo. Hurrah to WMU and especially to the great Sieta Scholars and the wonderful professionals who are dedicating their lives to helping these resilient young people succeed.

John Q. Public
Sat, 01/04/2020 - 1:58am

John Schilling. Clarence Jackson. Larry Vasquez. Eric Burch. Darryl White, Frank Desy. I'll bet John Seita remembers them all. He surpassed every one of them, though, since 1973.

Tracy C.
Sat, 01/04/2020 - 2:43pm

I'm so proud of her. I met this young lady at a foster youth training and she told me her story. I kept in contact with her for awhile. I knew she would be on to great things.

Paul Jordan
Sun, 01/05/2020 - 9:06am

Some folks first response to a program like this is to consider how much money it must take to provide the scholarships and stipends, and to pay for the coaches. Another way to think about it is to think about the 'resources' for society that the program is developing, and how much these young folks will be in a position to contribute to all our lives because of this investment in their lives.