Western Michigan University sophomore Nikki Jenks is intent on beating the odds.
Young people who spend years in foster care, as she did, are unlikely to make it to college, let alone graduate. Jenks bounced from home to home, peninsula to peninsula, school to school, and relative to stranger. At one point, she thought a likely career option was stripper.
But she's succeeding at Western, thanks to perhaps the most comprehensive program to support foster children in college in the nation. She expects to earn a bachelor's degree in social work and ultimately get a PhD.
The Seita program has helped Jenks adjust to college, and after a slow start, shift her focus from social to academic and boost her grades and develop relationships with her professors. "My campus coach is super supportive and helpful," Jenks said during her winter break. "I can't even imagine going to college without her or somebody to talk to."
Jenks is one of Western's Seita Scholars, students removed from their family homes because of abuse or neglect and now getting financial, academic and social support to give them the opportunity to succeed in college and launch successful careers. In five years, the program grew the germ of an idea during a ride home from a conference to one of Western's crown jewels, a signature program serving 160 students from 35 counties across the state.
And it has caught the attention of child welfare advocates, philanthropists and state policy-makers, who are now working with other Michigan colleges to expand higher education opportunities for foster children in ways that make sense for those institutions.
College degrees rare among foster children
There are about 14,000 Michigan children in foster care, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services' website. Child welfare expert Jim Hennessy said only 10 percent of foster children enroll in college, and just 3 percent to 4 percent graduate. Some of that is because students' academic progress is disrupted by frequent changes in schools. Foster children by definition lack family stability and parental support that contribute to success in school.
"We have some very bright kids who are in foster care who through no fault of their own have not had the same opportunities that other students have had to be successful in life, and we are losing the value they can bring to society as a whole by not recognizing this and investing in their education," said Hennessy, former director of Michigan State University's FAME program for foster children and now an independent child welfare consultant.
And absent intervention? Foster children are much more likely to end up homeless, in prison or confronting mental illness than other children.
John Seita, for whom the program is named, calls foster children "the last unrecognized minority." A former foster child himself who spent part of his childhood homeless, he earned three degrees at Western and now is a professor of social work at MSU.
"In our country, we have done a great job in the last 50 years with the civil rights movement and the women's movement, and all kinds of groups have all got their moment in the sun and been recognized as protected minorities," he said. "This is a group of people that has really gone through some trauma and pain and I think deserves the same kind of support that other marginalized groups have gotten."
Seita program offers full tuition
Seita Scholars receive full tuition scholarships, worth about $10,000 a year. Because they can't count on parents for financial support, they are typically eligible for Pell Grants as well as federal Education Training Vouchers. Students who manage their money well have a chance to graduate from college debt-free, said Chris Harris, director of the program.
The financial aid is vital, but so too is the academic and social support for students who don't have parents to turn to as they navigate through college and the transition to work and adulthood. The Seita Scholars program begins with an early transition program the summer before classes start, and they have their own student lounge.
Campus coaches are assigned to each student, and help is available around the clock, Harris said. Potluck dinners are arranged during finals week, and students have a place to stay between semesters if they don't have a home to return to. Some went on a field trip to Chicago over the holiday break.
Although Seita Scholars receive no preferential treatment in admissions, they start college somewhat less prepared than other students. On average, they score three points lower on the ACT exam, in part because of the educational disruptions and volatile family situations and the fact they often don't see college in their future.
Breaking through the 'isolation'
Jenks, who was removed from the home where she lived with her mother and mother's boyfriend when she was 12, said she began considering college in eighth grade, because of encouragement from teachers and, to a lesser extent, her case worker. Until then, she said, "I had this vision of being a stripper or something. It just shows the lack of upbringing."
Yvonne Unrau, one of the Seita Scholars founders, said that foster children often grow up in isolation, unaware that others are going through the same experiences.
"When they first came as a group to Western, it was a marvelous experience because for many of them were stunned to see so many young people that had grown up in the same situation as they had, and what wonderful people they were," she said.
The scholars program also is evidence of how quickly a program can start. Unrau, the college admissions director and financial aid director, brainstormed the idea returning from a spring 2007 conference on expanding college opportunities for foster children. The program was announced the following January and in place by September 2008.
Programs beyond Western's
While Western's program is the most comprehensive, a number of other Michigan colleges have services and programs to help foster children transition to college
Michigan State University's FAME program includes a summer camp for foster children to learn about college opportunities and a resource center that includes mentoring and leadership opportunities.
The University of Michigan's Blavin Scholars receive partial scholarships and have access to services 24 hours a day. Students are matched with faculty and staff mentors.
Aquinas College has two Fostering Success scholarships for students who were in foster care when they turned 18 or graduated from high school.
But there's broad agreement that more should be done, given the stunningly low rate of college enrollment and degree completion.
The Michigan Department of Human Services this year set aside $600,000 to fund "independent living coaches" to help foster children at several colleges. And the Kresge
Kellogg Foundation awarded a $700,000 grant to Western to support a Fostering Success initiative to share best practices and work with other public and private colleges to improve services and opportunities.
Jenks, who understands the Seita Scholarship program changed her life, is hoping that she can return the favor for vulnerable children who follow her.
"Hopefully, I would like to work in DC and influence policy and best practices within the child welfare system, because it's not the greatest," she said. "I would like to make it better than what it currently is at a national scale, instead of just the state level. But I'm willing to start at the state level."
For more information about the Seita Scholarship program visit http://www.wmich.edu/fyit/About/scholarship.html
Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.