Opening doors to opportunity: WMU’s Seita Scholars to celebrate 10 years with nearly 150 grads

As a young child, school was Antwinae McNeil’s saving grace. She always saw it as her ticket to a better life. 

But her abusive mother knew that and kept her home from school as punishment.

Trusting in herself and her capabilities, and despite years of trauma and neglect and being caught up in the foster care system, McNeil graduated from high school and made her way from a Detroit shelter to Western Michigan University.

McNeil completed her first year as a Seita Scholar with a 4.0 GPA and says the opportunity to attend WMU brought her from the depths of despair, from thoughts of suicide, to hope for the future. She feels it was a gift and says it saved her life. 

“I remember telling myself I had to get an education because that was going to be my escape, that was going to be my way out,” she says, reflecting on her elementary years. “I also give credit to myself because I didn’t give up, and I’m still here, and I fought, and I was determined. My education has always been my number one goal; it has always been a safe haven for me.”

An innovative, comprehensive support program for foster care youth, Sieta Scholars accepted its first class in fall 2008 and will have nearly 150 graduates when the program celebrates its 10-year anniversary this September. The program, and WMU, has garnered national acclaim, most recently by the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, which named WMU as the 2018 recipient of its Excellence in Innovation Award.  

Seita Scholars aims to expand accessibility to college and increase successful outcomes among young adults who have lived some or all of their teenage years in foster care, especially those who are aging out of the foster care system. Often, foster care youth don’t feel college is even an option. Many are struggling to meet day-to-day needs such as housing, food, and safety, says Dr. Yvonne Unrau, director of Center for Fostering Success and one of the founders of the Seita Scholars Program.

WMU rallies around Seita Scholars

Seita Scholars, named to honor Dr. John Seita, a three-degree WMU alumnus and national advocate for foster care youth, has garnered buy-in from all levels of the university and become a point of pride for the entire WMU community, Unrau says. The program has received support from Department of Health and Human Services, foundations, and private donations but is funded through the university’s general fund.

Seita Scholar Antwinae McNeil, Seita Scholar, with Ronicka Hamilton, director. Photo by Susan Andress “There was just a really magical way in which this university responded; it was from all levels,” Unrau says, noting support came from the president to the university’s dining services and skilled trades employees. “That group committed time to help students move in, helping new students carry their belongings from a case worker’s car up to the dorm room. People come together to make sure students have blankets or coats in the wintertime. We as a campus have adopted this program.”

The program evolved after Unrau, a professor in the School of Social Work, and other administrators attended a summit highlighting the issues facing youth who age out of foster care. At that time, foster care youth aged out at 18 years old. Today, they can voluntarily opt to stay in foster care until age 21, but they often have to navigate adult responsibilities such as finding housing, employment, transportation and health care without adult support.

“At the time we started the program, it wasn’t in the minds of foster youth to even think they could go to college,” she says. “Access was the driving force initially, ensuring students from foster care had access.”

Those who work with foster care youth realized there was a segment of students who were academically eligible to attend a four-year institution. In the first year, Seita staffers estimated they would have 15 students and ended up with 51 students, Unrau says.

“It all emerged pretty organically during my time as director,” she says. “We keep a residence hall open during the winter break so students are not without a place to stay. We work with the community and volunteers to make sure there is some food that students can access.”

WMU’s Seita Scholars spread through word of mouth and became a destination program for caseworkers, school advisors, and foster parents to refer eligible students and help connect them to resources and make the transition to college, Unrau says. 

“We never had to go out and sell the program in that sense, we always had more students than we could serve,” she says. “We had about 50 students every year and then we started having to cap it.”

Today, about 150 former foster-care youth are at home on the WMU campus and working toward their degrees. The program now has a career and peer mentor program and a steady pool of volunteers and donors who help make welcome baskets and supply the students with items for their dorm or whatever else they need. 

Open to students across the state, Seita Scholars must apply to WMU like any other student and meet certain criteria to qualify and maintain eligibility each semester. Although the scholarship does not cover all of their expenses, many qualify for other scholarships and financial assistance and the goal is for them to graduate with minimal student loan debt, Unrau says. 

Yvonne Unrau, director of the Center for Fostering Success chats with Seita Scholar Antwinae McNeil. Photo by Susan Andress Scholars receive a renewable scholarship, have access to year-round on-campus housing and one-on-one support and mentoring from a Campus Coach throughout their collegiate career. Campus Coaches are specifically trained to assist scholars with academic and personal issues and provide mentoring and support in seven life domains: academics, finances, housing, physical and mental health, social relationships and community connections, personal and cultural identity, and life skills. 

Besides coping with trauma and trying to meet basic needs, leaving foster care can be an isolating experience so Campus Coaches help students find ways to connect on campus and create a sense of belonging and community. The program’s focus has shifted to increasing retention and graduation rates and helping students transition into a career.   

“Getting kids to college was only part of the equation,” Unrau says. “We have four years to help them with figuring out a pathway for healing from their childhood difficulties and traumas and accessing opportunities for their futures, reinventing how they see themselves, building new social networks.” 

McNeil says ‘Seita scholarship was a gift’

McNeil and her four younger siblings dealt with CPS for most of her childhood, but she wasn’t removed from her mother’s care until age 15. That’s when she got caught up in what she calls a “broken” foster care system. 

“It was traumatic,” she says. “I do know that my time in foster care was definitely a time of trauma and grief and loss.”

While most teenagers worry about their next phone upgrade or high school sporting event, McNeil worried about where she was going to sleep at night or when she might have her next meal. She didn’t come home to loving foster parents and family dinners as teens are tough to place. 

Instead, McNeil’s foster care worker also operated an independent living facility where McNeil lived with other foster care youth in substandard conditions. When McNeil reported the situation, she ended up in a transitional shelter for teenage girls. 

Still, she continued to attend Chandler Park Academy High School in Harper Woods and learned about Seita Scholars after a WMU representative visited her school. With the help of her high school advisor, she applied to the program, interviewed with Seita staff members and patiently waited. She finally received the call that changed her life. 

“I just remember being super nervous,” McNeil says. “I wanted to get out of my environment, I just kind of knew this was my way out.”

For this group of students, it’s important they see stability and know Seita Scholars is not a temporary program, Unrau says. That is why WMU has a permanent office and permanent staff, and students meet with coaches weekly and check in via text and email. There is always a coach on-call in case a student runs into an emergency or crisis situation.  

Many students need help navigating college bureaucracy, dealing with professors and roommates, and basic life skills such as grocery shopping, budgeting, and figuring out career goals. Others need help with interview skills and attire, accessing medical or mental health services, or don’t know how to buy, register, and maintain a vehicle. Many have unresolved issues with biological family members or worry about younger siblings still in the foster care system.

“We don’t make assumptions about what students should or shouldn’t know; we meet them where they are and learn where those gaps are,” Unrau says. “It’s not always the academics that will knock someone out of college. It’s often the other things, not knowing how to budget your money, work through conflict with your roommate, or having an unattended health issue.”

Seita Scholar Antwinae McNeil appreciates the warmth and caring she has received from the program. Photo by Susan Andress By the time students graduate, the goal is for them to be self-coaching and figuring out how to solve their own problems, overcome challenges, and become successful adults. 

“You own the learning, that’s a real part of it,” Unrau says. “And our students and our coaches, they enter that relationship as partners. We know coaches are experts in navigating the university, but we know the students are the experts in their own lives.” 

McNeil feels like she has a new family at WMU and credits her Campus Coach Lakeyla Whitaker with helping her ride out the summer between graduating high school and arriving at campus. 

“It was my bundle of hope,” she says. “For me, it was such an amazing experience. She would call and check on me about the littlest things; it was just the smallest things. Nobody had ever taken that much interest in my life.”

A year into the program, she says she has never met such warm and caring people who truly care about her success and wellbeing. She enjoys visiting the Seita Scholars office and plans to work as a peer mentor for incoming Seita Scholars. 

“I just remember as a freshman last summer meeting the nicest people I had ever met in my life,” she says. “It was just so much kindness. I knew this is where I needed to be and this is where I belong.”

She plans to major in psychology, with a concentration on behavioral analysis, and wants to work with criminals, foster care youth, and youth who experience trauma. 

“I want to help change and rewrite the system because it is so broken,” she says.  

The Seita Scholars program also empowers students to take charge of their future, establish healthy relationships, and realize they can trust people. McNeil says she has learned a lot of self-respect and “how to do relationships differently.”   

“I like how students are treated as the writer of their story,” she says. “The coaches and everybody else in this office is here to make sure we stay on our journey, but we are the writers of our story.” 

Unrau has heard countless stories of lives being transformed, but program supporters believe it changes generations of family dynamics along with breaking cycles of poverty, abuse,  and neglect. Nationally, only about 5 percent of young people who age out of foster care will earn a four-year college degree. The Seita Scholars program has a 30 percent graduation rate.

“We’re not just changing the lives of one student,” she says, “but changing the lives of that student’s children and their siblings in some cases.”

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and professional writer based in West Michigan. Learn more about her by visiting her website or Facebook. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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