Sam Dunaway | News Editor
Teal blue ribbons adorn the trees around Western’s campus, bringing to light a community that is often overlooked: foster students. The WOU Fostering Success initiative is hosting Foster Care Awareness Month throughout May to help inform the campus community about foster students and provide support for individuals that have been a part of the foster care system.
Senior Sean Stephen is a foster youth peer mentor with WOU Fostering Success. With a personal history in the foster care system, Stephen strives to reach out to prospective Western foster students and ensure that current students have the resources they need to be successful.
“Coming from a foster care system into college is a pretty big transition for most students, and for foster care students it’s a really big transition because a lot of foster care children don’t have the support that they need,” explained Stephen. “That’s one area that I want to be there for them where they have, if they need it, support and advocate to what they need to help them be successful.”
The initiative was established in 2015 by Dr. Emily Plec, a professor of communication studies. She was impacted by students at Western that had experienced the foster care system and felt that there was more she could do to support them. Teaming up with a representative from Polk Youth Services and the previously established Wolves Fostering Hope club, Plec introduced one of the first initiatives to provide resources for foster students on campus, help them navigate financial aid and give general support that they may not get from other people in their lives.
“We tend to assume that everybody’s got a family,” Plec acknowledged, whether that’s someone to provide emotional support, financial stability or just a place to stay during holidays. “There was a group of students that that just wasn’t the case for.”
Help with advising, learning about federal financial aid benefits and even putting together finals week survival kits can enhance a foster student’s life at Western. Plec commented that the initiative is “just trying to do the things that families do that are the intangible parts of just getting you through.”
WOU Fostering Success planned several events during May for Foster Care Awareness Month including a socks and shoes drive for foster youth in the community, educational tabling and a duffle bag and suitcase collection, as part of the No More Trash Bags movement.
“In the foster care system, usually when you’re being transitioned from home to home, all you have is a black trash bag full of your stuff,” Stephen explained. “We’re trying to give foster kids backpacks and luggage and suitcases and duffle bags so they don’t have to be carrying around a black trash bag because that’s really dehumanizing.”
One of the most recent accomplishments of the initiative is creating a Preview Day focused on high school foster youth in Oregon. The event on May 25 is open to all foster youth interested in attending Western and includes a campus tour, assistance from the Student Success and Advising Office on transfer articulations and a luncheon featuring a panel of foster students sharing their experiences at Western.
“It’s just a whole day to meet students who are making the dream of college happen,” Plec expressed. And, for the first time ever, graduating foster students will be presented with graduation honor cords during the luncheon. Stephen, who is involved in the Wolves Fostering Success club that made this possible, believes this is a big achievement for foster students.
Stephen explained the difficulties that he faced coming to Western as a transfer student from the foster care system and not knowing anyone in the school. He encourages everyone to reach out to people that may need a hand.
“If you see somebody and you know that they might be struggling, just reach out and say ‘hey, how are you?’” Stephen suggested. “Don’t let somebody slip into the cracks.”
To learn more about the WOU Fostering Success initiative and Foster Care Awareness Month, visit wou.edu/foster.
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Photo by: Paul F. Davis