RISA helps foster youth, orphans and others adjust to college life at WCU

WCU student Judia Watson pauses to gather herself while telling her story.

WCU student Judia Watson pauses to gather herself while telling her story.

When Lowell Davis came to Western Carolina University two-and-a-half years ago to become the assistant vice chancellor for student success, he wanted to bring with him his passion for serving foster youth, something he developed at his previous job at the University of Alabama.

During the 2014-15 academic year, Davis worked with the Office of Financial Aid to identify WCU students who were either emancipated from their parents, homeless, orphans, wards of the state, or had aged-out of foster care. He invited them to a pizza party, but attendance was low.

Davis then partnered with North Carolina Reach, a state program that provides scholarships to the kinds of students Davis was targeting. Currently, there are about 30 such students attending WCU, Davis said. Eventually, he formed a group that met about once a month for social gatherings such as game night, pizza parties and bowling. The students named their group RISA – Resilient, Independent Student Association.

While most colleges and universities across the country have these students in their population, they often go unnoticed and are underserved. While they are academically prepared for college, they are often hampered with social, personal and financial issues that prevent them from being successful.

For example, Davis said when WCU closes its residence halls and the dining facilities for fall break, spring break or holiday break, many of those students have nowhere to go. And those who live off campus either barely have enough money to pay their rent, or are working two and three jobs to try and make ends meet.

“They don’t have parents to say, ‘Hey, I need $10 or $15,’” Davis said. “It’s just them. There’s just different challenges. You have a student who you know can do the work, but when you talk to them, they’re working two-three jobs. They have health issues. A lot of them are dealing with mental health issues that prevent them from doing everything that any other student would be able to do if they didn’t have those challenges. It’s just different.”

Davis said many of the students receive assistance from Counseling and Psychological Services. But it also helps being around other students who come from similar situations.

Davis was assisted last year by Jill VanOrder, a student services specialist with teacher recruitment, advising and career support.

Following several meetings, Davis wanted to publicize the group by holding an event called “Telling our Stories.” It gave those who were willing a chance to share their story. Davis limited the audience to those who the students invited, along with some special guests.

WCU Board of Trustees member John Lupoli and his wife Anita, who own TJ Bailey for Men, a men’s clothing store in Highlands and Cashiers, outfitted the male students with suits, shirts, ties, socks and shoes. An anonymous trustee gave a donation to purchase items for the females.

“The reason that it’s not public is because you have a student who says, ‘I was abused. This is what happened to me.’ Many students would not feel comfortable if everyone heard this,” Davis said.

Seven members shared their powerful stories last spring. One of those was Sophia Calhoun, now a junior environmental health student from Lexington who is currently assisting Davis with the program this year.

Calhoun’s mother died when she was 9, and she became an orphan after her father passed when she was 14. She was left to split time with her grandparents and her aunt and uncle. Her grandparents were later awarded full custody.

The guests who were invited to RISA's "Telling our Stories" event applaud after hearing one of the students.

The guests who were invited to RISA’s “Telling our Stories” event applaud after hearing one of the students.

“I got up and I don’t remember what I said in my story,” Calhoun said. “I just started crying. It can be a lot to tell that many people, who you have no idea who they are.

“It’s a lot of pressure to make these people feel like you’re talking about something that’s worthwhile. You want them to know that your program is something that they should be interested in, and that they should be willing to push for it in any way that they can. When you get up there, you’re hoping that whatever sadness you feel connects with them on some level because that’s what you need, for them to be invested.”

This year’s event was held Monday, April 11, and featured even more powerful stories.

“I didn’t understand that some foster students, once they hit 18, a lot of them don’t have a home to go back to,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t understand that’s how the foster care program worked. So you’re stuck at 18 with no health insurance, no income from anyone. Once I heard stories of people not having anywhere to go, I can’t imagine who I would talk to or go to if I became homeless as soon as my dorm doors closed. I don’t know how you would live that way and still be a student.”

Calhoun said RISA has focused this year on developing programs such as a nutrition event to teach students how to buy healthy food on a budget and how to cook that food with the resources they have available, noting that many students like herself never had an opportunity to sit with their mother in the kitchen and learn how to cook for themselves. They also are looking into having more outreach events instead of just social events, she said.

“It’s amazing when you sit these students down, and the first few sessions we had we were like, ‘What can we do to help you guys, what is it you guys need,’ and within two or three meetings the students started saying, ‘Can we get start doing outreach? Can we get involved in local high schools? Can we start doing events that make our situation something that people know about?’” Calhoun said.

As RISA grows, Davis said he would like to see the program spearheaded by someone full-time.

“I am personally passionate about this population, but I do not have the time to commit to it that I think the program deserves,” Davis said. “I think that someone, one person that this is what they do, is the kind of direction this program needs. The student doesn’t want to be bounced around from person-to-person.”

Davis added that he would like to see similar programs develop across North Carolina. For more information on RISA, contact Davis at 828-227-7495 or lkdavis@wcu.edu.

By Marlon W. Morgan