Recent Western Michigan grad among 3 percent of foster kids to finish college
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it.
Recent Western Michigan University graduate Alexis Lenderman lives by that saying. As a child in the foster care system, she fought every day to stay positive and work hard in school. Her optimistic outlook eventually helped her become one of 3 percent of foster youth to graduate from college.
May is National Foster Care Month. On any given day, there are roughly 443,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, according to the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau 2018 report.
“That number (3 percent) is mind-blowing to me,” Lenderman said. “It definitely feels good to be a part of that.”
Lenderman graduated from WMU on April 27, receiving a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a minor in political science. Once she completes a study abroad program in Senegal, Africa, she’ll receive a second bachelor’s degree in global and international studies.
Lenderman graduated with several honors, including magna cum laude from Phi Beta Kappa, one of the most selective honors societies in the nation. She is also a member of WMU Lee Honor College’s Tau Sigma Honors Society and the National Society of Leadership and Success.
“I just have a standard of excellence for myself and I don’t allow myself to go below that,” Lenderman said. “I’m hard on myself because there’s too many people who’ve been through what I’ve been through— it’s not abnormal. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it.”
Growing up in Flint, Lenderman remembers her father telling her college was a waste of money and saying college wasn’t an option for her. However, he went to prison when she was 13 years old, and her mother died when she was young, so at age 13, she entered the foster care system. That’s when school truly became her coping mechanism.
“Even though the world around me was unstable, school provided stability for me,” Lenderman said. “It was one thing no one could take away from me. Because of that, I loved it.”
When Lenderman graduated high school, she first attended the University of Michigan-Flint, but felt she needed a little more support in her educational development.
She visited WMU and fell in love with the campus. She was intrigued by the Seita Scholars Program, a program which provides foster care students with scholarships in addition to constant support from a campus coach, who helps the students navigate their education and adjusting to life as a college student.
Lenderman now attributes her success at WMU to the program.
Attending WMU also provided Lenderman with an opportunity to be closer to her foster parents, Kim and Brian Switalski, who are WMU alumni. She only lived with them for six months before she left for college, but they had already become her role models. She said the couple is the epitome of the type of parent she wants to be one day.
“Foster kids are never allowed to make decisions for themselves, but when I moved in with my parents, they asked me questions, challenged me and allowed me to make my own decisions,” Lenderman said. “My life would be so different if I didn’t learn to make decisions for myself.”
For her 25th birthday in January, Lenderman asked Kim and Brian to adopt her. They’re currently filling out the adoption paperwork.
The day Lenderman moved onto WMU’s campus, she met her now-fiancé, Justin Black, who is also a Seita Scholar, in Henry Hall. She felt like it was meant to be because her foster parents also met in Henry Hall when they were WMU freshmen. Lenderman and Black have been together for three years, and will be getting married next August.
“A lot of people call us a power couple ... but it’s really not like that,” Lenderman said. “When you bring two foster kids together with trauma it can be difficult, but we’re big on unlearning unhealthy habits and relearning new ones.”
Lenderman said she learned what a healthy relationship is from Kim and Brian, and models her own relationship on them. Black shares Lenderman’s love not just for education, but studying abroad and traveling.
While Lenderman was touring WMU, her tour guide mentioned that the most study abroad programs a student had ever completed was six. She thought to herself, “I could beat that.”
Lenderman has completed six study abroad programs to South Africa, India, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Italy and Ecuador. She’s traveling to Senegal, Africa on May 18 for her seventh study abroad program, which is the highest number of study abroad sessions any WMU student has completed.
After Senegal, Lenderman will be traveling to Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Washington D.C., in addition to going to the Penn Law Global Institute for Human Rights in June.
Black studied with Lenderman in South Korea, and visited her while she studied in Ecuador, where he proposed to her. He will be studying with her in Senegal and Hong Kong, before going to Rwanda and Uganda to continue helping WMU set up its first multi-country study abroad program in Africa.
All of Lenderman’s study abroad programs and her education were paid for completely by scholarships and grants. She was named the 2017 Newman Civic Fellow, and became one of two students to receive a full scholarship through The Fund for American Studies and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute to participate in the Leadership and the American Presidency program in D.C. for a semester. While there, she interned at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and took courses at George Mason University.
Lenderman is passionate about helping others find scholarships to help cover the cost of education, and offers her scholarship-searching services through her website, The Scholarship Expert. She said her passion for finding scholarships began in high school.
“A lot of my high school teachers know me as the girl who went crazy for scholarships,” she said, laughing. “One asked me, 'Can you leave some for everyone else?’”
Lenderman doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. She’s a part of the Children’s Bureau Federal Team, which analyzes state foster care systems to ensure they’re providing the children with proper care.
Her ultimate dream is to work in international development and have a career abroad. Lenderman plans on applying to Georgetown University to earn her master’s degree in foreign service in fall 2020— immediately after her wedding.
“I need to expect greater things for my life,” Lenderman said. “Not just the bare minimum.”
Link to the original MLive article HERE.