Many of Michigan State University’s roughly 50,000 students come from more traditional homes and families, but hundreds of students are independent or have experienced foster care or homelessness. At MSU, FAME is dedicated to helping those students achieve their goals of graduating and thriving.
Fostering Academics, Mentoring Excellence (FAME) is a resource center and MSU School of Social Work Community Program created to support MSU students who come from foster care or kinship care, have experienced homelessness, who are independent or who come from other non-traditional backgrounds. FAME provides support and resources to help those students navigate through their college career and make it to graduation and beyond.
A primary function of FAME is to provide support and resources, including coaching and matching students with mentors; events that focus on important subjects, from financial literacy and housing to cultural awareness and social and life skills; support during final exams, including care packages and an end of the year celebration; and a care closet where students can pick up toiletries, household products, non-perishable goods, school supplies and more.
“The population of FAME eligible students is often not thought of or overlooked by many,” said Chiquita Whittington, director of FAME. “Many students are preparing for college with close-knit support from their parents — they’re going dorm shopping, reviewing class schedules, completing FAFSA applications, and preparing for move in with much support. A lot of the time our students do not have this extra support and are transitioning from high school to college alone. Our goal at FAME is to offer that support system by giving students another resource, so they don’t feel like they have to navigate the college world by themselves.”
Guidance through the unknowns
Transitioning to college can be difficult for many students, but especially for students like Brandon Drain. Before starting at MSU in the fall 2017 semester, Drain experienced homelessness for three years of high school.
He came to MSU where he had his own bed and a place to live, but he still did not have any family members or support systems he could call on when he had countless questions about transitioning to college, financial aid, signing up for classes or finding a job.
Drain’s FAME mentor helped as he made his transition into college life. His mentor showed him how to be successful, both inside and outside of the college classroom. Drain learned how his time as a college student would help him become a working professional and he learned the importance of a healthy lifestyle and to better understand the communities he was a part of.
“The program is set up where you partner with coaches and mentors and that kind of dynamic allowed me to navigate the college experience in a way that felt authentic, I felt like I was supported and guided. It’s a resource,” said Drain, who graduated from MSU in 2021 and now works as a communications manager for the MSU School of Social Work. “During my first year, I knew folks who were in similar positions as me, and I told them they should really check out this program because they help you stay on top of things, that’s what they’re there for.”
Coaches and mentors are a critical piece of what FAME offers to students. Mentors provide social, emotional and educational support for students. They are their support person outside of the FAME office, said Ashley Hayden, FAME mentor specialist.
Most mentors are faculty and staff members at MSU, though employment at MSU is not required to become a mentor. Mentors are asked to meet with their assigned students for at least four hours every month, and students look to their mentors for needs ranging from social and emotional connection to accessing resources or simply navigating through the challenges of college.
The Coach Program provides students with a life skills coach who will work with them during their time as a college student. Coaches meet with students one-on-one at least monthly and work with students on developing and improving independent living skills, navigating campus and university resources, and providing a support system to help them thrive as college students.
Finding a foundation
Not having a core foundation of people to support them serves as the biggest challenge for some students who go to college. Devian Johnson, who will be a senior this fall and will graduate in 2024, arrived at MSU in 2020 after coming through foster care and experiencing homelessness.
He received the Evans Scholarship, a college scholarship offered to golf caddies that covers housing and tuition, and Johnson lived in the Evans Scholars Scholarship House at MSU in East Lansing. It helps to live with other scholars, including some who helped provide elements of the support he needed, but Johnson still didn’t have that strong, core foundation of support. That’s where FAME comes in.
“I can lean on my fellow peers, but my fellow peers also have their parents, and their parents can visit them, communicate with them,” Johnson said. “Not having that core foundation of a support system is one of the biggest struggles I’ve ever had in my life, that’s why I lean so heavily on FAME. It gives me that support system, that someone who cares, that someone who is willing to have my best interests at heart and provide some of those things to me.”
Whittington and Hayden encourage faculty, staff and students to spread the word about FAME so the organization can reach more and more eligible students. To learn more about FAME, visit fame.socialwork.msu.edu. To learn how you can support FAME, including through donations, go to fame.socialwork.msu.edu/how-can-i-help/index.html.
“We want to see them succeed,” Hayden said. “The research shows us that students with these lived experiences are often less likely than their peers to attend and graduate college. We want to help them get to the finish line.”
For questions about donations, or if your department or organization is interested in organizing a fundraiser to collect items for the FAME Care Closet, like toiletries and personal care items, contact Whittington at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.