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Growth of foster youth program brings leadership changes

by John Greenhoe

Dec. 16, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of Chris Harris, WMU.
Chris Harris
KALAMAZOO--The growth and success of Western Michigan University's foster youth support programs have led to program enhancements and changes.

Dr. Yvonne Unrau, WMU professor of social work, is the founding director of the University's Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative. Effective Jan. 6, 2012, Unrau will end her role as director of the effort that is also known as the Seita Scholars program and take on the task of creating a new Center for Foster Youth and Higher Education Studies at WMU. William C. "Chris" Harris will replace Unrau as the Seita program director.

In her new duties, Unrau will implement new teaching and research initiatives that will complement the Seita Scholars effort. The teaching component will begin with a new three-year, $1 million project, funded largely by the Kresge Foundation, which will allow WMU to build a consortium of Michigan colleges and universities and support organizations that will promote higher education opportunities for foster youth. The statewide effort will reach out to foster youth beginning at age 12 and include a youth-friendly web site that provides college resources for those currently in foster care.

Harris was hired as the new Seita Scholars program director after a nationwide search and brings a significant record of achievement to the position. His distinguished corporate career includes work with Vanguard, Pfizer and Stryker Medical. At Stryker, Harris most recently has served as a senior project manager, overseeing teams of more than 125 people around the world and managing a budget of more than $25 million.

"The search committee was impressed by Chris' project development and team building experience," says Unrau. "We also were impressed with his genuine interest in student success and his solid record of career advancement. Chris brings a unique blend of qualities that make him ideally suited to lead the Seita Scholars program."

About Chris Harris

Harris' personal background includes experiences that deliver credibility in his work with foster youth. A native of Raleigh, N.C., Harris has only seen his biological father once since the age of six and his mother struggled to protect him as a child. As a result, Harris indicates that he was sexually abused by a number of individuals during his formative years.

At age 16, Harris entered a state-run independent living program and used the opportunity to forge his own path. In high school, he played varsity soccer, served in student government and was actively involved in the local Boys Club. Harris was offered several college scholarships and graduated with a bachelor's degree in finance from East Carolina University.

After graduation Harris began a highly successful nine-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, including two years in the Air Force Academy. During that time, he earned a master's degree in human resource development from Webster (Mo.) University. During his final two years in the Air Force, Harris was responsible for ensuring that a 60-person admissions office and a 2,000-plus liaison-officer force were fully informed on officer admission and scholarship standards.

Harris has been actively involved in the WMU foster youth program since its beginning, serving as a career mentor. He is also a board member for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo and has served as a volunteer for a foster-youth support program at Michigan State University.

Harris will use his project management skills to build on the Seita Scholars program record of success.

"We need to build our vision and think about where we want to be five or more years down the road," Harris says. "That means really defining our purpose and determining where we want to go. If we begin with the end result in mind, we can build a plan to meet that vision."

Harris has raised two children from foster care who are now adults (ages 33 and 30) and is currently raising two boys, ages three and nine, who are products of the foster care system. In raising children, Harris says he stresses the importance of self-reliance and capitalizing on available opportunities. His approach with WMU students will be similar.

"Western Michigan University has done an outstanding job in building what is really a 'home' for former foster youth. We are their family," Harris says. "While it is important that students feel comfortable in their surroundings, at the same time we must hold them accountable. That means helping them to build relationships outside of our program and encouraging them to expand their boundaries. While we will work hard to provide them with the necessary tools and supports, ultimately these students are personally responsible for their own success."