UWEC Program Welcomes Students Who’ve Experienced Homelessness and Foster Care

Samantha Kobs, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Angie Swenson-Holzinger, left, and Taz Smith are part of UWEC’s Fostering Success program, aiming to help incoming students identifying as homeless or from foster care.
Angie Swenson-Holzinger, left, and Taz Smith are part of UWEC’s Fostering Success program, aiming to help incoming students identifying as homeless or from foster care.

As a freshman at UW-Eau Claire, Taz Smith came up with a service-learning project that meant something personal: a program to help university students who have previously been a part of the foster care system. As a former foster child, Taz is all too familiar with the hardships associated with foster care and homelessness. When brainstorming ideas for her project, the answer came quickly.

 “I thought ‘Why not do something that’s close to home? Why not do something that I want to see change in?’ ” Smith recalled. “And that was the foster care system. Especially because I’ve been through it, I’ve experienced it, and I saw how much of a struggle it really was to get through it.” 

Little did she know that across campus, the Leadership Fellow Cohort – a professional development community consisting of faculty and staff members from different offices and fields – was simultaneously making plans for an almost identical program. Serendipitously, Taz was introduced to the Leadership Fellow Cohort just this spring, and voila, the Fostering Success Advisory Board was born.

“Just because they’re in college does not mean they’re not struggling. Not everybody’s got a mom to call home to at night. Hell, not everybody’s got a father to call home to at night. Not everybody has that. This is what the program is for.” – UWEC student Taz Smith, on the University’s new Fostering Success program

 Board member Angie Swenson-Holzinger, associate director of advising, was inspired by an existing program at UW-Stout that has shown noticeable growth in the five years it has been operating. With the blessing of UW-Stout, the Fostering Success program is now being established here in Eau Claire. 

For Angie, the program is a step towards equity. “I’d like to see that this program helps any opportunity gaps that are there and helps the students to feel that there are people that care about them on campus and in the community, and that their voice matters,” she said.

Ultimately, the committee will provide assistance in transitioning to university, financial aid, housing, and academic advising. The first focus for the upcoming school year is to provide welcome baskets filled with basic necessities and supplies to freshmen students experiencing homelessness or who are coming from the foster care system. In time, the program aims to include other supports such as mentorship and good ol’ fashion family-style dinners to help students connect with others. (Taz keeps bragging that she’s got a knack for cooking!)

There are 50 students in the incoming class alone who self-identified as either homeless or former foster children. According to data collected by the advisory board, this number continues to increase, thus justifying the need for the program.

With dreams of becoming a federal prosecutor or criminal analyst, Taz is looking forward to being a champion for this marginalized community. She knows that these individuals need somebody on the sidelines rooting for them.

“Just because they’re in college does not mean they’re not struggling,” Taz said. “Not everybody’s got a mom to call home to at night. Hell, not everybody’s got a father to call home to at night. Not everybody has that. This is what the program is for.” 

One thing is to be made clear: Taz and the committee are stressing the importance of understanding, acceptance, and trauma-informed care. Sharing one’s story can be difficult, and the program aims to help individuals get the support and services they need without continually having to retell their stories. The approach is much more familial, according to Taz.

“You don’t have to necessarily tell us your business, but if you want to sit down, come sit down on my couch,” she explained. “Think of this program as a stepping stone that’s going to get you to where you want to be. It’s something that’s going to help you.” 

The initial goal set by UW-Eau Claire’s Fostering Success is to raise $6,000, and Angie noted that the committee has been shocked by the support they’ve received so far. The community is invited to support the effort in whatever way possible. Tangible donations (detergent, shower shoes, towels, feminine products, etc.) can be dropped off at the Campus Harvest/Campus Closet space at 49 Brewer Hall (basement level) on Tuesdays or Wednesdays from 2-5pm (please label donations ATTN: Fostering Success). Monetary donations (which are preferred for logistical reasons!) can be made online or in person through the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. Other questions or inquiries? Don’t hesitate to contact Taz (smithtr8131@uwec.edu) or Angie (swensoan@uwec.edu). They’re here to help! You can also make a donation online through http://uwec.ly/fosteringsuccess.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.