April 26, 2012/Detroit Free Press
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 Seita Scholars program originally was envisioned for a dozen students during fall 2008. But then more began showing up, some stepping from caseworkers' cars and clutching a garbage bag of belongings.
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.
Now, at least five other universities and colleges are poised to establish their own versions of the Seita initiative this fall under $600,000 in funding from the Michigan Department of Human Services. With several proposals to consider, DHS will announce the recipients of the funding by next week.
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.
Defying the odds
Without a family safety net, foster youth face higher odds of poverty, homelessness and imprisonment. Research suggests 1 in 20 get a college degree before age 25.
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."
Earlier this week, Orlando Brown, 19, of Detroit stopped by the Seita offices in the basement of the student services building.
The smell of sloppy joes filled a hallway lined with pictures of the Seita Scholars at pool parties and picnics. Staff brought in lunch -- an extra welcome for students to stop by and blow off steam during finals week. Laughter spilled from a nearby room.
Brown, who said he grew up with his brothers, said he is cautious about talking about the Seita program, worried that others might think he has an undeserved luxury somehow -- this full ride to school.
"I'd do anything to get my parents back. The other kids, they don't realize they're the ones with the luxury," he said. "I'm constantly wondering if everything is a stepping-stone or just another roadblock. (Other students) have someone to tell them to keep going. They don't have to figure it all out on their own."
The idea for the program ignited in 2007, when Delorey and two colleagues heard John Seita, a former foster youth, speak at a conference.
Now a Michigan State University professor and author of several books, Seita recalled being a foster youth at a private college during his first Thanksgiving break. Alone on an empty campus with nowhere to go, Seita snuck back into his dorm to keep warm during that break.
Thunderstruck by Seita's talk, the WMU trio came up with a plan: The school could provide free tuition to these students -- a scholarship worth $9,000 annually. And another $13,550 in a typical financial aid package could cover other costs, such as room and board.
Moreover, the school could build services to meet these students' unique needs, leaving dorm rooms open for them during breaks and providing at least limited dining services.
"We kept saying, 'We have to be careful, or this crazy idea might actually work,' " Delorey said.
But the big question mark: What would John Dunn, the new WMU president, think? They were shocked.
In an interview earlier this week, Dunn said it would have been easier to hold more meetings, ponder some more or simply do nothing. Sometimes, though, you just have to act.
"Everyone talks about the system being broken, but the problem is not with the system. ... We are the system. ... It's really up to us," he said.
Dunn went to his trustees for support. "Someone asked, 'How are we going to pay for this?' and I said, 'I have no idea,' " he said, laughing.
In his own office across campus, Delorey recalled the same early meetings.
"When we started looking for buy-in, we never imagined this," he said. "Not only did we never get a 'no,' the only response -- the only thing anyone ever said to us -- was, 'How can I help?' "
As it turned out, help came from unexpected corners.
WMU staff and local churches put together care packages of flip-flops for showers, alarm clocks and other essentials for college life. A local dentist offered work when he heard about one student's dental emergency. University staff sewed quilts.
And American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1668, which represents support staff, holds an annual holiday meal for the students. Some members mentor students; others use vacation days to help students move into their dorms.
"We all are very aware that the more students that are on campus, the more secure our jobs," said Bryan Sutton, who coordinates the union's efforts for the Seita Scholars. "We started out because we were asked to help. But then it kind of took off. A member would say something like ... 'I just bought a case of toothpaste for next to nothing with some coupons. How do I donate it?' "
The Seita office now has seven full-time employees. Five are coaches who help students navigate college life and adulthood.
Scholars, on average, will take nearly six years to get their four-year degree, said Chris Harris, program director. He wants to improve that rate, but he's not stressed about it. "Look, the goal line here is graduation. We're not in a race," he said.
More help to come
In December, the Troy-based Kresge Foundation invested $700,000 to establish the Center for Foster Youth and Higher Education Studies at WMU to coordinate efforts with other schools wanting to establish similar programs.
The timing couldn't be better: In April, Michigan extended foster care from age 18 to age 21 for eligible youth who want the services. Moreover, it set aside $600,000 each year for three years to establish programs similar to the Seita Scholars at other college campuses.
To be eligible for the program, students must have lived in foster care on or after their 14th birthday.
Enthusiasm has built on enthusiasm, said Yvonne Unrau, a professor of social work, founding director of the program, and now head of the new office funded by Kresge.
"It has been somewhat a magical experience. I think so much of that is the spirit that the students bring," Unrau said. "When people meet these students and they see their grace, their strength, their talent, their humility, and in some cases, their struggles, people want to reach out."
More Details: Foster youth have long odds to beat
Michigan's universities and colleges are reaching out to former foster youth, many of whom are among the 500 or more each year who age out of Michigan's foster care system without being reunited with their own families or adopted by others.
Tracking the success of these young adults is tough, and there is disagreement about the national numbers. Still, this much is clear: Those who step into adulthood without a permanent family face daunting odds. According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a St.-Louis based nonprofit:
• 1 in 5 or more will become homeless after age 18.
• Fewer than 3 in 5 will graduate high school by age 19.
• 7 of 10 women will be pregnant by their 21st birthday.
• Just half will be employed at 24.
• Fewer than 3% will earn a college degree by 25.
• 1 in 4 will be incarcerated within two years of leaving foster care.
For information, go to www .jimcaseyyouth.org .