Kalamazoo Valley staff members are helping to assure the success of college students who were formerly in foster care. Life Resources Coordinator Coty Dunten and her co-workers Ken Barr, Jr., Director of Student Strengths Development, and Karen Steeno van Staveren, Career and Student Employment Advisor, have collaborated with the Teen Unit at the Kalamazoo County Department of Human Services. Students are matched to a voluntary support group for teens in foster care called the Futures Group.
The Teen Unit was created in 2012 and is unique to Kalamazoo. There are six caseworkers, two supervisors, and two informal staff members working exclusively with teens in Kalamazoo. They work on education, goal setting, and life skills lessons like family planning, substance abuse prevention, grief and loss, and cooking.
Coty Dunten, Life Resources Coordinator at Kalamazoo Valley, said the foster youths who are participating in the Futures Group go through a three-part personal and career exploration process. They take the Strengths assessment and interpret their results, complete career assessments, and take part in a campus tour. “We connect all the dots,” Dunten said.
Students consider what jobs they’re best suited for and then determine the degree programs they’ll need to complete to qualify for that line of work. “We take a holistic view,” Dunten said. “We know that kids in foster care tend to miss a lot of school and spend a lot of time catching up. They might not be getting personal and career information in high school.”
Dunten said last year there were no foster youths attending college and this year there are seven. She said creating the added supports for these students has been a win/win. “They are an untapped population,” she said.
In addition to partnering with DHS, Dunten is in close contact with staff at Western Michigan University where the Sieta Scholarship has been established to support WMU students who lived all or some of their teenage years in foster care. Dr. John Sieta, namesake of the scholarship, has said that foster youths are one of the last unsupported minorities on college campuses.
While the college success rate for foster youths is low, Dunten is certain that the Teen Unit and Futures Group are helping to improve the situation. She said she she expects Kalamazoo Valley to continue supporting foster youths in college. She said a summertime bridge program is already being developed to allow the college to connect more intentionally with student support programs.
Dunten, Barr, and Karen Steeno van Staveren, are reaching out to staff at other community colleges to “help them understand that it doesn’t have to be costly to help youth who were formerly in foster care,” Dunten said.