Updated: Wednesday, 08 Apr 2009, 6:06 PM EDT
Published : Tuesday, 07 Apr 2009, 5:09 PM EDT
KALMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) - He knows the statistics: just half of children who age out of the foster care system finish high school. Just one in eight gets a bachelor's degree.
But Richard France is fighting to stay on the right side of them. He finished high school and is working on a bachelor's degree at Western Michigan University, thanks in part to a scholarship program in its first year there.
"It means a lot," France told 24 Hour News 8. "I don't really have the family backing that some people do."
That family backing means financial support, or at least a student loan co-signer, for so many other students. The John Seita Scholars program, part of WMU's Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative provides free undergraduate tuition for students who age out of foster care. France has been in foster care since he was very young.
"I moved around quite a bit and I had to live with other families that weren't my own," he explained. "That, in general, is something you really can't get over. You're never quite comfortable with it."
Seita Scholars live on campus -- a home even during the holidays if they need it. France says staff have invited the students to their homes for holiday meals.
"Things like that really make it feel more like a family, a community," he said. The program evolved from a statewide conference on foster youth in 2007 and is named for John Seita, a Western alumus and foster care advocate. Seita Scholars are even covered for tuition when they study abroad.
"An incredible opporunity," scholar Jillian Gecewicz said. "I would never, ever have thought I would be able to go to Egypt."
Aquinas College now plans to offer a scholarship for next school year -- the Fostering Success initiative -- covering tuition as well as room and board for a couple of students aging out of foster care.
"My own personal feeling is, in four years, we might have 20 or 30 of these kids on campus," said Bruce Nanzer, director of the Aquinas' Community Leadership/Public Administration program. Expanding the program that far would require some outside financial help.
Nanzer said the concept of the Aquinas scholarship came from his involvement with the Kent County chapter of the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, which includes children in the foster system. The program will include extra support for students once they're on campus, Nanzer said.
Western offers that support as well. The program's office assistant, Jamie Crandell, is a product of foster care herself.
"My whole heart is in this program. And it's so inspiring to me to see these kids who might not have made it otherwise or need to help make it -- to help them to see them succeed it makes it worth getting up every day," said Crandell, who is also a student and heads the Seita student association.
She calls it an honor.