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EMU program helps foster kids navigate college

May 15, 2014

Finding an apartment. Deciding a major. Getting a ride home for the holidays. 

When you have mom on speed dial, getting college advice – and reassurance – is easy. 

But what if you don't? 

Brittany Bartkowiak was 10 when Child Protective Services entered her life. She spent high school in the Wayne County foster care system. For a while, she lived in a group home. But she finished high school, and the next fall, started college at Eastern Michigan University.

Brittany graduated about two weeks ago with a degree in social work. She will be the keynote speaker at the 2014 Fostering Success Michigan summit in Kalamazoo. It starts tonight. Brittany will tell you getting to this moment was sometimes lonely, sometimes scary, but also empowering and fun. 

"When I turned 18 and aged out of the system, I had no idea what would be next for me. School just sort of seemed to me to be a great option – one that I could actually reach because it was something I could control. I could control how hard I worked in school. I could control whether or not I applied for college. So, I just threw myself into it," she says. 

Brittany is one of the rare number of college students in Michigan who have spent time in foster care. She is among the even rarer 3% who graduate.

Her first year of college was tough. She was alone a lot of the time, and when Christmas break rolled around, she realized she had no idea where to go. Staying on the empty campus was grim, yet she wasn't sure she could go back to her parents' house.  And she felt weird about asking friends to take her in. 

During her junior year, EMU started a program geared toward supporting college students who had experienced life in foster care. Brittany saw a flyer and came back for the number when no one would see her. She wasn't ready to reveal to the world that she had grown up in turmoil.

That flyer was how she met Joi Rencher, the coordinator for EMU's support program for students who have experienced foster care. Through the program, called MAGIC (Mentorship Access and Guidance In College), Brittany learned how to file taxes and how to get health insurance. She learned about jobs and scholarships. 

Then came the elephants. Joi would send her stories about her favorite animal, just because she was thinking of Brittany. Joi became that person students like Brittany could depend on.

"Every single area of my life, she has made an impact," Brittany says. 

MAGIC starts with talking. Students come in, tell Joi what they need, and together, they come up with a plan of attack. Joi's the "mom." She's the "cool aunt." But, mostly, she's a rock that these students can lean on.

She's helped students with medical needs. She's helped them get driver's licenses. She even helps them with school work, since a lot of students from the foster care system come to college having bounced around from high school to high school. They'll have missed a section of math, because schools don't teach at the same pace. They'll be missing transcripts after going to three or four high schools. And they'll be missing autonomy, having had judges, lawyers and social workers decide what's best for them from the day they entered the system. 

Then, there are the reminders of what they don't have, the trauma of seeing affection they didn't experience and the weirdness of feeling out of place and not part of mainstream college life. 

"A lot of times they get here on campus, and they feel absolutely alone. That's a lot of emotional trauma when they have to witness another student getting supported and they're not getting support," Joi says.

So the 15 students in her care, some of whom are former foster kids and others who were homeless in high school, get a year-round place to live. They get a place on campus they can come to when they need to scream, or get a hug, or to share success.

After graduation, Joi threw Brittany a party, and invited all the people Brittany cared about. The young woman looked around at the community she formed during her time in college.

Brittany says it was the best night of her life. 

Fostering Success Michigan starts tonight in Kalamazoo. Sarah Alvarez will be there tomorrow. Come back to Michigan Radio to see what she finds. 

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