Below is an example of my work, involving pitching, researching, interviewing, producing, writing, and editing more than twenty articles, as well as photographing more than 80 assignments for Washtenaw Community College’s official newsletter, On the Record, which has a print distribution of 140,000 across Washtenaw County, Michigan.
The statistics are dismal.
For youth who experience the foster care system, fewer than 10 percent go on to graduate from college. At 18 years old, “aging out” of the system brings new meaning and challenges to their independence.
While some students at Washtenaw Community College have an adult to mentor them, others enter higher education without a shoulder to lean on or the wisdom of a parent’s experience.
That’s where REACH steps in. REACH — Realizing. Educational. Achievement. Can. Happen.
REACH is more than an acronym and the REACH program at WCC is more than free resources. The Youth in Transition grant from the Michigan Department of Human Services aims to provide students who’ve experienced foster care on or after their 14th birthday with extra support to foster their success as students.
Words have power, as do their origins. The definition of “foster” means to “encourage or promote the development of”—and REACH aims to continue this presence in the lives of the students as they balance academics with learning life skills.
When a student enrolls at WCC through the online enrollment process, they have an opportunity to identify themselves as having experienced foster care. Checking this box flags their application and Kathy Stewart, licensed social worker and independent living skills coach for the REACH program, contacts the students.
“We’re lucky to have such a supportive administration at WCC that supports a program like REACH, often reaching students before they even come to campus,” said Stewart.
For those students that aren’t identified early in the enrollment process, a community of awareness can ensure that these students have access to the resources they need.
“It starts with awareness and person-first language,” said Stewart. “These are not ‘foster kids’, as they’re first and foremost students, like others. It’s more inclusive to speak of their experience with foster care as being just one of their experiences.”
Faculty and staff are already on board. With campus champions from various departments already serving as points of contact for these students, she’s assembling an advisory group comprised of campus and community members to further facilitate their efforts and focus on programming and sustainability of the REACH program.
Stewart collaborates with agencies across the state to find the best ways to support students. While she tailors her support of each student that comes to her office, she says that all students benefit from having an extra word of encouragement or a point in the right direction for housing or food resources. A granola bar goes a long way toward getting through a day of class, she said.
One of the tools that Stewart introduces to students is the “Seven Life Domains” model developed by Casey Family Programs and endorsed by Fostering Success Michigan, a similar program at Western Michigan University.
It provides a framework for students to regularly assess their employment, life skills for living and career preparation; cultural and personal identity formation; supportive relationships and community connections; physical and mental health, and even housing.
Success in these areas can ensure that students meet their educational goals and achieve academic success. Each area gives students an opportunity to reflect on their current situation and identify working goals for each of the areas.
And Stewart should know. At 12, she also learned firsthand what it meant to experience foster care. Knowing the particular challenges facing this student population helps her to connect with and guide each student.
When Stewart interviewed for this position, she almost forgot to mention her own experience of foster care. She has a family of her own now, and in her role at WCC, she continues to share her experience and support these students.
“Kathy’s empathic case management skills along with the financial and asset building opportunities, mentoring relationships and navigation through the educational system has changed the lives of those students who might not otherwise have the opportunity for post-secondary education,” said Liz Orbits, dean of Support Services at WCC.
“You could say that Kathy acts as a healthy female role model in my life,” said Indyo Anderson, a WCC student in the REACH program.
Anderson was one of the first REACH students, and has worked with Stewart for more than one year. He experienced foster care as a child, and feels lucky to be reunited with his father. While he doesn’t have much contact with his mother, he remains focused on his studies and cultivating a healthy environment where he can reach his goals.
Having earned his GED through the WCC Adult Transitions program in the fall of 2015, Anderson walked in last week’s graduation ceremony. He was excited to receive his cap and gown, proudly holding up the cap’s green and gold tassel. He is now working on his associate degree in business administration.
For those students at WCC who have experienced foster care, they are now experiencing an education that isn’t taken for granted.
To learn more about the REACH program or how to get involved, contact Kathy Stewart at (734) 973-3572 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text and photography by Jessica Bibbee. View digital version of original print story here.