Liz Burns, 22, was in the middle of a busy time at college. But, for some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about her older brother.
She texted him and got what she called “a scary” answer. So, she called their aunt, who confirmed that her brother had just gotten out of drug rehab and was struggling to stay sober.
Burns couldn’t think straight.
Her brother was a two-hour drive from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. Checking on him quickly would have been difficult, even if it hadn’t been her busiest time of the year.
She was terrified, she said, and didn’t know how to make sure he was OK.
Only one destination made sense to her.
“I just went into my coach’s office,” Burns said. “And I asked, ‘Do you have a minute to talk to me?’”
Former foster children within the university’s Seita Scholars program, like Burns, get one-on-one support and mentoring from campus coaches. Scholars and coaches typically meet once a week, but coaches are also accessible by cell phone 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
That day, a panicked Burns talked over the situation with her coach, who reminded her that it was not her fault for being at school. With the coach’s help, she wrote a text message to her brother. “Even though I’m not there physically, I’m still, you know supporting you,” she wrote.
After walking through strategies to help her cope with worry, Burns left feeling that she could once again focus on her life at college.
Coach model ‘kind of the magic’
On Western Michigan’s campus, the campus coach model has become an essential part of success for students formerly in foster care determined to defy national data showing that a scant 8 percent of young people who age out of foster care will graduate with a four-year college degree.
“It’s not always academics that knock a student off track — it could be financial challenges, conflict with a roommate, dealing with an unattended health issue, or having an existential crisis,” said Yvonne Unrau, a professor of social work at the university and one of the founders of the Seita Scholars program. The program is an initiative of the university’s Center for Fostering Success, which Unrau now directs.
Compared with other youth, foster youth aging out of care struggle more when it comes to finances, jobs, housing, physical and mental health, personal relationships, and social networks. Once foster youth age out of care, they are less likely to have a driver’s license, or an active Medicaid card, and they typically have no one who can co-sign a loan or a lease for them. Any of those struggles can easily become a barrier. Students who have been in foster care often flounder academically in high school, find higher education more difficult to access and are less likely to stay enrolled in college than their classmates.
Seita Scholars have a 30 percent graduation rate, compared with national averages of 8 percent for former foster children. Maddy Day, a former director of outreach and training for the center, remembers becoming aware of the success of the Seita Scholars program while she worked at a similar program at the University of Washington.
“We had been hearing about the work that was happening in this place called Kalamazoo. We were hearing about some successes in California, because of its statewide focus there, but they were seeing numbers in Kalamazoo that even California schools weren’t getting,” said Day, who got a chance to scrutinize and analyze the Seita program’s results first-hand when she was hired by the Fostering Success Center in 2012.
From her research, Day is convinced that much of the program’s success stemmed from one element.
“The program’s gold standard is a highly trained coach and that is what makes the difference. That is kind of the magic,” Day said. “Anyone with a high-skilled coach will do better. It keeps coming back to this — you need one caring adult, someone who you know is going to be there for you, when you succeed and when you fail.”
Students who evaluate the program rank its aspects by importance. And while academic scholarships are seen as very important, they are outranked by campus coaches. “We learned that, out of all the supports, the relationship with their coaches is most important,” Unrau said.
That estimation is a remarkable endorsement from former foster youth who often spend their formative years focused primarily on survival and on day-to-day needs such as food, housing, and safety.
“One of the biggest barriers for me was actually just learning to ask for help,” Burns said. “Before I came to Western, if I would have been in that situation with my brother, I probably would have just kept it to myself and not talked with anybody about it. Because I would have thought I could handle it.”
How it started
In 2008, Yvonne Unrau helped to launch the Seita Scholars program without a clear strategy for student support. The program was initially created merely to facilitate access to higher education for former foster children. At the time, foster youth aged out of foster care in the state of Michigan at age 18, putting college far out of reach for most of them.
Today, thanks to a change in law, foster youth can opt to stay in care until age 21.
To help encourage foster youth to enroll, Western Michigan University created a scholarship program for an alumnus named for John Seita, a former foster youth who is now a professor at Michigan State University and a national advocate for foster youth.
Seita has written about the challenges of being a foster youth, including the lack of what is sometimes described as “family privilege” — ongoing family support combined with the invisible benefits of having grown up in a stable family that taught its children how things work.
The Seita Scholars program was wildly popular from its inception: they had predicted that 15 students would enroll. Instead, they got 51 students ready to start school as Seita Scholars in the fall of 2008.
“We were kind of like, ‘Whoa, whoa,’” said Ronicka Hamilton, the program’s director, recalling how the incoming students had a high level of needs that the program couldn’t respond to.
From the earliest stages of the Seita Program, there was agreement that student support should be based on a framework developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Casey researchers had studied youth aging out of foster care and outlined the “Seven Life Domains” that touched them: academics, finances/employment, housing, physical and mental health, social/community connection, cultural and personal identity, and life skills.
“We knew we had to hit these seven areas in the way that we support our students,” Unrau said. “But we didn’t know how to do it.”
In January, as the second semester began, the program hired its first full-time coach. Shortly afterward, Hamilton became the program’s second coach.
Developing the model
The roles were called coaches because it was a non-stigmatizing name, said Jamie L. Bennett, now 38, who was hired in 2010 as the program’s third coach. “The idea was that it’s fairly common for college students to say, ‘I’m going to call my coach.’ Plus, we wanted to support them but not as a counselor or with a mental health focus,” Bennett said. “We shied away from using the term therapist or even case manager, since that can be a loaded term when you’ve been a foster youth.”
When the program’s inaugural school year ended, it was time for the coaches to use what they had learned to create a formal framework. “We dove into developing the coaching model,” Hamilton said. They started with making sure that they had an understanding of trauma and how that impacted students, then moved to other life areas. “We asked, ‘What do we need to know to do that?’ And we’d have these two-hour meetings twice a week with Dr. Unrau, who’s a researcher, so she’d just dive in and ask real deep, research-oriented questions.”
In the end, they adapted the seven life domains by centering it around academics.
The Seita team also created dozens of data benchmarks to track progress. “We monitor grades, retention and graduation rates; whether there are holds on a student account because of unpaid bills or a parking ticket; withdrawals from classes; dropped credits; and annual medical-dental checkups,” Unrau said. “We also bring students together in focus groups and survey them.”
At first, the coaching model was designed only to address the needs of Seita Scholars. Then in 2013, a grant allowed Bennett to develop a training curriculum and a coaching model that would work in other contexts, with staff from other programs or on other campuses. Bennett is now a senior trainer who has traveled across the nation teaching the “Fostering Success” coaching model to about 400 coaches to date.
The trainings are in demand, as a growing number of colleges and universities develop programs for former foster youth. “At this point in time, no national survey captures what precise services are being offered and where,” Unrau said. “But I think that there is a general appreciation that children aging out of foster care need something additional.”
Whenever Seita hires coaches, it seeks out applicants with some connection to foster care. “We can teach people how to coach,” Unrau said. “But it’s very difficult to teach about the experience of foster care to people who don’t know it.”
How it works
During her freshman year as a Seita Scholar, Tamara Toutant arrived on campus and was introduced to her coach, Jamie Bennett. Toutant had transferred to Western Michigan after attending a community college closer to home. At home, she had continued to watch over her five younger brothers and sisters, a role she’d played since she was 13, after their mother — who grew up in foster care — left the family and her father became an addict. “It’s just this crazy cycle,” she said.
During her initial months on the Western Michigan campus, she had trouble disconnecting. “I kept going home every weekend,” she said.
She talked over the situation with Bennett. “She helped me realize that what I was feeling was OK,” Toutant said. “And she helped a lot with goal setting, because I knew that I was interested in getting my siblings back after college.”
Toutant graduated and became a campus coach in her own right. “I didn’t realize working with my coaches that there’s this whole model they’re going through in their head,” she said. “Because it didn’t seem robotic.”
The coaching model, based on the seven life domains, recognizes that foster youth come with survival experience along with trauma and a lack of opportunity that leads to what Bennet calls “exposure gaps.” The way to address that is simple. “Help students engage on campus,” Bennett said, explaining how she first asks what the student has tried. Then, together, they walk through the process.
If it gets to the point where the student has to talk with someone, Bennett would offer to be there. “You do the talking, but I’ll walk over with you,” she would say.
Student requests for help can come at any hour, because there is always a coach on call. But students cannot make willy-nilly requests for assistance: they can’t, for instance, ask for a ride to the barber or to another non-emergency appointment. That’s not meant to eliminate all after-hours calls, Hamilton emphasizes. “If there’s something causing them distress, they should reach out and call,” she said. “It’s all about setting boundaries but also being available.”
Coaching is not meant to be mental health therapy. Students can disclose their background, but they don’t have to, because campus coaches are focused on the present and the future. “I don’t have to be the expert. Your job isn’t to fix things. Your job is to help students find answers. We’re helping them decide what’s the right thing for them,” Bennett said. “We always do with, not for or to.”
In 2015, Toutant became the first young woman in her entire family to graduate from college. She now has custody of two younger siblings who are in high school; three others have become Seita Scholars. Soon they will earn their own diplomas and join with her to “break the family cycle through education.”