Former Foster Youth in Michigan are Beating the Odds With the Help of an Innovative Program

Studies have shown that as few as 2.5 percent of former foster youth graduate from a four-year college. However, at Western Michigan University, the Seita Scholars program is going a long way toward helping some former foster youth reach their academic potential. Robin Erb of The Detroit Free Press has more:

When Heather Nichols strolls across the stage Saturday at Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium, the former foster youth will be handed more than her bachelor’s degree. Nichols will get the distinction of being the first four-year graduate of a groundbreaking program that sends foster youth to college tuition-free — one that was hatched on a “crazy idea,” and fueled by human kindness and incredible timing.

The “crazy idea” was to give former foster youth not just free tuition, but the additional services they need to help them overcome the challenges of attending college without any family support. Since the program’s start in 2008 it has yielded impressive results:

In all, the inaugural class numbered 51. Now, there are 131 Seita Scholars. “I stood there thinking, ‘Oh wow, what have we done?’” said Mark Delorey, financial aid director and one of the architects of the program.

The program’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed by Michigan’s government. By next week, the state’s Department of Human Services is expected to announce at least five universities and colleges that will receive a total of $600,000 in funding to establish programs similar to Seita Scholars. Foster youth advocates are praising the move:

This has made Michigan a national leader in moving foster youth into college, said Gary Stangler, executive director of the St. Louis-based Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group for those transitioning from foster care.

“(State officials elsewhere) say, ‘You don’t understand. We have a budget problem.’ We say, ‘Well, Michigan has a budget problem that everyone in the nation knows about, but they’ve done something here’,” he said.

As for Heather Nichols, she is living proof of what can happen when former foster youth are given access to the opportunities so many of us take for granted:

This week, Nichols, 22, knew she had faced down the odds. With a degree in exercise science, she plans to become a certified physical therapy assistant.

“I tell everyone about it (the Seita program). I’m proud. I’m proud of what they do and I’m proud of what I’ve done,” she said. She grinned: “Look — four years. I did it.”

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