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KPS Grads In Action: Ronicka Hamilton
Linda Mah
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KPS Grads In Action: Ronicka Hamilton

Hamilton Helps Foster Kids Succeed in Seita Scholars Program at WMU

There are no perfect paths to success.

Ronicka Hamilton knows that from her own experience — and the experiences of the students she works with as the director of Western Michigan University’s Seita Scholars Program, which helps students transition from foster care to life as college students.

Hamilton grew up in Kalamazoo and was raised by her mother Ruby Hamilton. Although her father, the late Lewis Colbert, was active in her childhood, it was her mom who was her main support.

“My mom was the custodial parent,” she said. “My dad was totally there, but my dad was always sick probably since I was 5 or 6. My dad had lupus and he died about 10 years ago. My mom was a 16-year-old mother. She turned 16 the day after she had me. In a lot of ways, we grew up together. That in and of itself was often a struggle.

“Every day when I look back at who I am, I am very surprised and extremely thankful.” Hamilton attended elementary school at Northglade, Arcadia, and Westwood (now King-Westwood); middle school at Hillside and South (now Maple Street), and graduated from Loy Norrix in 1990.

Going to college was always in the back of her mind, because she knew that she didn’t want to do manual labor like her mother and father.

Still, she didn’t really start thinking about college until her junior year in high school, when her school counselor started talking about applying.

“As a first-generation college student, I wondered how would that work, how do you pay, how do you get in,” Hamilton said.

She enrolled in Kalamazoo Valley Community College with plans to major in elementary education, but by then she was working in an elementary school and had gotten to know the school social worker.

“I was intrigued by her. She was able to work with the entire family and deal with the whole system,” Hamilton said.

Right around that time, her father was forced to retire because of his lupus and her mother went on disability. Money became tight, so she dropped out of college.

Hamilton was working fulltime for several years when a girlfriend told her she had to earn her bachelor’s degree.

“She said, ‘You need to go back, even if it’s just night classes,’” Hamilton said. “I was like, ‘Night classes? Are you kidding me? When I get home from work, I’m exhausted.’ She said, ‘Well, you better find the energy. You need to adjust because you need to be back in school.’”

Hamilton took one night class. Then two. Then three and started working part-time. Then she finished her associate’s degree in social work in 2000.

Then, a friend told her about a job at Western Michigan University. The added benefit of a university job was reduced tuition. With night classes and weekend classes, Hamilton completed her bachelor’s degree in social work in 2002.

By 2006 she had a master’s degree in counseling psychology. She earned a second master’s degree in higher education student affairs in 2012.

In 2008, WMU launched the Seita Scholars Program to help change the college-going success rate of youth from the foster care system. The program provides scholarships for students and helps them transition to life on campus and build a sense of community among students.

Hamilton who had been working in the Division of Multicultural Affairs, joined Seita Scholars in 2009 as a campus coach and became the program’s first senior campus coach in 2013 before being named the director of the program in 2017.

“We have a really solid foundation rooted in theory with a coach model,” Hamilton said. “Coaching is different than parenting or mentoring. We don’t have a role of authority in a student’s life. We pride ourselves in partnering with our students to help them achieve their goals.

“They need help adjusting to a lot of things, and we want to help them understand how they can integrate their experiences and build opportunities for their future. There’s good and bad in everything, and you need to take both and build that into your transition here and the opportunities to help you transition to a career.”

More than 400 students are enrolled in the program, which has graduated 142 students. The Seita program was the first of its kind in the state and has served as a model for work at 18 other colleges and universities in the state. The program also runs the Center for Fostering Success, which provides national leadership on issues related to foster care and higher education.

For students who grew up in foster care, she said she wants them to know, “You are at a point in your life where you get to choose what happens next, so take charge of it.”

Hamilton was recently at a meeting for Kalamazoo County Health and Human Services, for which she serves on the board. She suddenly had a flashback, remembering being there with her mother to receive help. She thought, “Now, here I am. When I’m talking with kids in foster care, I want to tell them they can still make it.

“I couldn’t have dreamed this life. I am a Christian. The Bible says that God does more than we can think or imagine. This is certainly more than I could have thought or imagined.”

Cutline: Ed Lara (Seita Scholars Program campus coach); scholar Tiana Randolph, Seita Scholars Director Ronicka Hamilton, scholar Kaleigha Martin, scholar Ali Tinai, scholar Shakeela Gipson, scholar Halana Turner, scholar Maggie Grimm, Elyse Hogn (Seita Scholars graduate assistant); Keyla Whitaker (Seita Scholars campus coach).  They pose for a photo in Lansing during a visit to the state capitol for Foster Care Advocacy Day.

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