By Josh Holderbaum
As of this academic year, teenagers within the foster care system can now pursue a college degree with the John Seita Scholarship.
The scholarship, which pays full tuition to WMU students who aged out of foster care, is part of the Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative. The initiative has two goals for students from foster care.
“First, we aim to give these students a clear educational pathway leading to career opportunities that will result in a better and different future,” said Yvonne Unrau, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Social Work.
“Second, we will work with other systems, such as the Department of Human Services, Medicaid and other state offices to join the effort to improve systems so that they can better serve young people who are raised in foster care.”
The program includes over 50 students this year, far higher than creators predicted.
“We have 51 students in the program and were expecting about 15,” said Mark Delorey, Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships. “Normally, only 13 out of 500 kids who age out of foster care will receive any degree after high school, so this is a great number. And WMU is the only college in the nation to do anything like this.”
Living in the dorms is one of the most important scholarship requirements, Delorey said.
“By living on campus these students can get support, meals and they can have a home here 365 days a year,” Delorey said. “We have to be making sure our most vulnerable students are getting support.”
John Seita, Ph.D. and namesake of the scholarship, aged out of foster care himself and said having support was a vital part of his future.
“I was lucky enough to be around people who helped expose me to social values like working hard,” Seita said. “Success comes by belonging. It’s a multiple approach: you need an education, be able to socialize, be articulate and have motivation. That can’t happen without people.”
Seita, a WMU alumnus, spent 13 years in foster care and is now a Michigan State University associate professor. Seita wrote three books on foster youth and also gives workshops on the topic.
A workshop at Starr Commonwealth in Albion taught by Seita served as a catalyst for Delorey, Unrau and Penny Bundy, Director of Admissions, to meet with Seita about their plans.
“After our first meeting I figured nothing would really happen,” Seita said. “I’ve done hundreds of meetings and almost no one follows-up. This was astonishingly fast for a scholarship.”
As the scholarship began to take shape, only one real problem emerged.
“The only problem we hit was who to name it after,” Delorey said. “I thought about it, and I said, ‘I know who inspired me: he’s an expert in the field, he lives in the area, and he got all three degrees from here.’ John Seita. The greatest thing is that he’s ours.”
Seita, however, wasn’t thrilled about the name.
“When Yvonne Unrau called and said we’d like to name it the John Seita Scholarship, I said that’s really not appropriate,” Seita said. “But the more I thought about it, it seemed like it would give a face to this scholarship.”
Along the way, the scholarship received the support of WMU President John Dunn.
“My initial reaction was we must help these young people and the program needs to start now,” Dunn said. “Dr. John Seita and Dr. Yvonne Unrau were ‘champions’ and they did a great job of helping all of us understand the need for and benefit of WMU’s commitment to these students.”
Dunn has also made the initiative one of his speaking points at off-campus meetings.
“My reasons for doing so is a point of pride about WMU and our institution’s commitment to respond to compelling needs and to do what we can to support and serve future generations,” Dunn said. “I also believe that as more individuals hear about the program, funds will be generated to support our efforts in providing a much-needed program now and in the future.”
Seita is proud of the program, and hopes it will spread to more schools.
“I’m very proud WMU is a national leader,” Seita said. “I’d like to see this taken to scale on a state or national level, at colleges and community colleges everywhere. This group’s needs flow over to colleges in the area. It’s a very neat situation.”
However, Delorey said some colleges aren’t keen on the idea.
“I can’t tell you why they haven’t done it,” Delorey said. “At the Michigan Student Financial Aid Association meetings, I made presentations with John [Seita] and it hasn’t been something a lot of them support. There’s even been some resistance to it.”
Despite resistance, Delorey can’t wait to see how the students do in school.
“These are good kids,” Delorey said. “I don’t want to make any predictions about their futures, but just having more than 13 of them out is great. It’s important for the state and the university.
“I can’t wait for graduation to see them walk across the stage.”
For more information about the John Seita Scholarship, visit www.wmich.edu/fyit.index.html.