Blavin Scholars Program helps normalize college for foster students

Monday, September 18, 2017 - 8:07pm

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Design by Olivia Stillman

 

The positive impact of the Blavin Scholars Program is unquestionable to donors Paul and Amy Blavin. Stepping back from the support it provides for 37 students who have experienced foster care in their life, they see a broader goal. 

“It’s the American dream personified,” Paul Blavin said.  

When the Blavins introduced the program, they said they were met with uncertainty. Still, since 2009, the Blavin Scholars Program has strived to create a stress-free community in which students can have a “normal college experience.” In addition to financial aid of up to $5,000, Blavin scholars receive campus coaches, educational programming and options for year-round housing, including during holidays and breaks.

BSP Director Miriam Connolly said the program intentionally grants their scholars’ requests to remain invisible. She stressed how important the prospect of anonymity is.

“This is what we call an invisible population,” Connolly said. “Some want to remain invisible because they just want a normal college life. I feel like it’s really critical for the student to feel like this is their program.”

Housed within the Dean of Students Office and in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, the program has admitted 54 students and currently supports 37 students, with eight graduating next spring. The program also boasts a 95 percent retention and graduation rate.

After reading Dave Pelzer’s novel “A Child Called ‘It,’” Blavin said he was inspired to begin the program with his wife. In the novel, Pelzer tells the story of an abused child who goes into foster care only to face even more challenges later in life.

According to the Foster Care Alumni of America, only 3 to 10 percent of individuals who have spent time in foster care graduate from college, and more than 425,000 children in the United States are in foster care. The Blavins and Connolly aim to change the narrative of those who experience foster care.

“There aren’t very many of these programs around the country,” Paul Blavin said. “Through trial and error, we’ve figured out that money is not the issue. It’s the struggles that continue once you get into college unless the proper support is provided.”

Connolly said she believes in “student-centered planning,” and begins by looking at each prospective scholar’s needs, such as career development, life skills preparation, identity formation and their university community experience.

“We provide a holistic approach,” Connolly said. “Each student is different. We work through each and every aspect of that scholars’ undergraduate experience and their life to really help them gain the skills they’ll need to be successful at the University of Michigan.”

Scholars have access to one-on-one support, mentoring and community building. They also set goals at the beginning of each semester and meet with coaches at least once a month.

Blavin scholar Samantha Wilson, an LSA senior, has been in the program since the fall of 2015 when she transferred to the University. She said her mentor has had a positive influence on her life and has helped her through difficult times.

“My mentor is one of the best people on the planet,” Wilson said. “It’s just lovely to have her in my life. We can talk about personal things and that’s the beauty of being paired with a mentor — you get to choose what you want the relationship to be like.”

Wilson said the program levels the playing field and gives students with difficult, complicated and differing pasts people they can trust.

“To be on more of a level playing field, to say, ‘I am here, no matter my path and no matter what has happened’ is so impactful,” Wilson said. “To have someone say, ‘I’ve got your back,’ for a lot of people it’s unprecedented and it’s uncomfortable. … It provides such a serene, haven-like place for so many people, and I mean that in terms of state of mind.”

The program helps students eliminate financial barriers by providing a $5,000 scholarship each year to help pay for personal needs in addition to their financial aid package.

“It meets any gaps the student has in their financial aid package,” Connolly said. “Our students may have more emergent needs than the average student. Some scholars deal with homelessness while others just lack funds to finish their degree due to family obligations.”

Wilson said she uses the scholarship money to pay for classes and food.

“It’s removed a lot of barriers financially,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from or how I’m going to pay for this class. All the who, what, where, when and how’s now have answers.”

Many struggles scholars face stem from a lack of community, Blavin said, which causes pressure socially and academically. There are therefore several events, including dinner with the Blavins on Thanksgiving for students without a home and social gatherings, in order to build a community.

Connolly said a major goal of the program is to turn a large campus into a small place where students feel welcome. Blavin added how lonely college can be for minority students, both socioeconomically and racially, without a network of support.

“College can be a lonely place,” Blavin said. “When you’re a minority on campus, it can be a very difficult place. So we have a supportive community that I think our scholars find beneficial. It’s the love and attention our scholars receive from everybody — that’s where success comes from.”

Connolly and Blavin said not all scholars have the privilege of having a family for support, which is where coaches help. Coaches, such as Connolly, help scholars move and provide dorm supplies such as bedding, laundry detergent and other items.

“Thinking about this idea of family privilege, every scholar’s experience is different,” Connolly said. “Our scholars may not have family support like their roommates. We may be that support — so we’ll load up our cars and help them move onto campus. And we’ll also supply them with all of the things that they’ll need.”

Wilson said she has struggled to build consistency in her life.

“Abandonment can be a huge component of being in care,” Wilson said. “I’ve had a lot of overturn in my life. It’s like a revolving door. To have someone stay is a rarity. To have consistency, I think would be a component that needs to be worked on.”

Going forward, Connolly and Blavin would like to have 100 scholars in the program and create a positive experience for students who have experienced foster care. Other goals include growing their alumni base, expanding even more in the community and affecting governmental policy.

“In the future of the program, I do see us going to 100 students,” Connolly said. “And I do see us changing the narrative around students who have experienced foster care. We’re looking at how we can improve these outcomes.”

Paul Blavin said he hopes organization, faculty and even students continue their support for the program because they drive its success.

“We all can be rooting for the success of these students,” Paul Blavin said. “It’s an amazing example of the power of the human spirit.”