NRC-FAHE: National Research Collaborative for Foster Alumni and Higher Education

Practice Highlight – The Wily Network

NCR-FAHE Interviews Judi Alperin King, Founder, Executive Director of The Wily Network

Can you give us some background on your program and how it got started?

I was trained as a psychologist, and I worked for the same organization for most of my career, with children who were managing emotional, behavior and learning issues. I have long been drawn to colleges and their campuses. I was lucky enough to study on four college campuses. People think that once you get to college, you’re going to break the cycle. That’s not always the case. There are many systemic barriers to success once in college. To develop the Wily Network, I visited higher education support programs around the country to understand best practices. The programs I visited sat at one college. Greater Boston is home to more than 50 colleges, and I did not want young people to feel that they had to attend a particular college in order to benefit from Wily. We strive to figure out a way to help students at any local college. We also decided to work with four-year colleges that offered on-campus housing. We modeled Wily on the Blavin Scholars program at the University of Michigan. We designed the program and we received our first round of funding in late 2015. Over time we have built a solid team of professionals. Unlike many of our peer programs, Wily includes students who have never been in foster care. We work with students who are experiencing life challenges such as homelessness or foster care, or whose parents may be deceased, dealing with addiction, mental health issues, or incarceration. Our goal is to make sure talented young people feel that they belong in college. By working with students at several colleges, we have grown quickly, even through COVID, which has been really remarkable. We are currently working with 62 students at 10 colleges.


How is your program funded?

We are funded primarily by individual donors. Most nonprofits fail in the first three to five years, so we had to figure out a way to make the program sustainable. We designed a fundraising paradigm that enables us to commit to a Scholar for their full college career. Our Fund a Scholar program sets the annual cost of working with a student at $12,500. We ask donors to make a four-year pledge for a total of $50,000. Currently, 52 Scholars are fully funded through this program. We also receive funding through relatively small grants. We hope to go to some large funders in the near future. So far, people readily understand the challenge of being on your own in college without the things you need. That understanding has made for successful fundraising, even during the crisis we’re in right now.


How many students does your program serve?

This fall, we plan to work with 63 students. Twelve students graduated in May, and five of them don’t have jobs yet. We’ll work with them until December. Our plan is to have 115 Wily Scholars in five years, and 210 at the 10- year mark. We’re hoping that will capture everybody in the greater Boston area, but there isn’t good data available on how many students would be eligible for a program like this.


What is your role within the program?

I founded the program, and my title is Executive Director, but I wear many hats. I’m in charge of the finances, human resources, operations, and all the major fundraising. Right now, I’m also working directly with six students. Going forward I’m going to try and work with just one or two students. I don’t think this will be the year I move into a strictly executive director role, because we’re still developing different components of the program, including anti-racism practices.


What are the main components of your program?

One component of our program is coaching. Coaches go to students’ campuses and meet with them every week. There’s a lot of genuine caring interactions, and I think Scholars leave the program feeling that this is a lifetime relationship. We don’t do any therapy, but we’re using our clinical lenses with every interaction, and we refer students to therapy if needed. Students can text us if they get an A on a paper or if they forget to write a paper. We have somebody on call for emergencies. We were very careful not to replicate anything that the college or university already does. The second component involves supplemental Financial Assistance. We give students a stipend every month that they can use as they choose. We also provide them with a computer and a phone. We help set up their dorm rooms and make sure they have the clothes and food they need. Anything they need they can talk to us about. We approach funding their needs by asking, “What are your resources? What is your budget? What have you been saving?” We want to make sure that they’re aware of what they’re spending money on, and how to budget, but we also don’t want them working 40 hours a week in addition to school. The goal is always to enable them to focus on being a student. The third component is our community building and networking program, which focuses on developing relationships both internally and externally. The program helps Scholars build a community of peers who understand their story and share their career aspirations. Many of the Scholars who have been in foster care have said that they had never met other young people like them, and to be part of a group where everybody just understands is an amazing feeling. The networking program focuses on developing social capital. Typically, when you walk into the Career Center and say, “I want to be a lawyer,” a career counselor might say, “Oh, do your parents have any friends who are lawyers?” Such situations are obviously unwelcoming to Wily scholars. While we work with career counselors to be sensitive to the needs of our Scholars, we also introduce them to people in the community so they can develop the connections they will need.


What impact has the program had on its participants?

The community-building program has the greatest impact on students. I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t said something along the lines of, “You mean there are other people like me on this campus?” Some students cry when they hear there are students on their campus who have had similar experiences.


What advice would you give to policy makers?

In general, we don’t bump into many laws or policies. It’s much more about the systemic biases at colleges, especially the assumption that all students have family support. That said, I would love for long-term mental health services to be covered by everybody’s health insurance. Students come to college and they believe 1. They have four years of guaranteed housing, and 2. It’s going to be a place where they can begin to heal their scars. But the intensity and stress of college life makes it a tough place to heal. The mental health issues are overwhelming. It’s hard to find qualified therapists who have worked with people who have experienced trauma. If they don’t take insurance, we pay for the therapy appointments.


What changes has the program seen due to the pandemic?

Wily Scholars, like most students, were bombarded with communication from their schools about leaving campus. Even though they were ultimately allowed to stay for the spring, a lot of them made the choice to leave and go somewhere that was unsafe or unstable. We helped those students come back to Boston and get an apartment. It was a relief that we could help them by providing a safety net during this really unpredictable and awful time. We didn’t fully anticipate the impact on our Scholars of social isolation. We now have weekly Wily virtual dinners. We send a gift card to anybody who wants to come so they can order in, and then we all eat together. Typically, we would go and help students on moving day, and we can’t do that right now. That’s been tough. Not only is it not going to be their family moving them in, it’s not going to be their Wily coach either.


What do you want the program to achieve in the future?

My dream is for somebody to donate a home with lots of bedrooms, so that in emergencies Wily Scholars have a place to live. We could have our offices on the first floor and rooms for students to live in case of a gap in housing. In terms of initiatives, it would be ideal to have an association of the peer programs around the country to establish best practices. The vision is that everybody collects the same data, and we can make inferences from successes or refinements of other programs and have a yearly conference to share these. This would help ensure that all students who fit the criteria for higher ed support programs are given the same opportunities around the country so that they can graduate and have successful careers, families and lives.

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