The Interview with Judi Alperin King

The Wily Network was established to improve graduation outcomes for promising students who have experienced life challenges such as foster care or homelessness, or whose parents may be dealing with addiction, mental health issues or incarceration. It provides a critical safety net for these Scholars as they navigate college on their own. Its program provides weekly coaching, financial assistance, community-building support, and networking opportunities to help them move from surviving to thriving.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you founded The Wily Network.

I trained as a psychologist and worked for many years at Wediko Children’s Services, often with children in foster care. One day on a flight, I happened upon an article titled, “Out of Foster Care into College.” I loved my college years and had always felt I wanted to be back on a college campus. So, struck by this article, I wrote a five-page position paper, visited existing programs across the country that addressed the needs of such students, figured out best practices, organized a board, talked to schools, and tried to raise money. Thus, the Wily Network was born.

What are the goals of the Wily Network?

Our Scholars just want to be treated like normal college students. Many were overlooked by the system or were not necessarily in the foster care system, lacking even that structure. They raised themselves, getting into college on their own. There is no typical student. For many, the responsibility they feel toward their siblings is an unimaginable weight, a worry they must balance and manage along with their need to get a good education. One of my skills is that I am able to see each of these students as a person no matter what challenges he or she faces. The Wily Network connects Scholars to Clinical Coaches who meet with them weekly on their college campuses. The program works to ensure that Scholars have year-round housing and food security, and creates a sense of belonging through community events, holiday celebrations, etc. From orientation to graduation, Wily aims to provide a safety net for its Scholars, connecting them to outside resources to meet their social, emotional, and financial needs, empowering them to keep pace with their peers.

Please tell us some stories about the impact your work has had.

The Wily Network has formed partnerships with five area colleges: Boston College; M.I.T.; Northeastern; UMass, Boston; and one remote program at Middlebury. Because of these bonds, those colleges send referrals all the time. Some sample benefits of such a partnership include:

  • If a student seeking an internship goes to the Career Center on campus and says, for example, that she wants to be a lawyer, the first question usually is, ”Who does your family know that is a lawyer?” By building a relationship with a Wily Coach, the student learns that a better strategy is to seek out internships that provide housing and pay well, thus broadening the chances of gaining valuable career experience.
  • If a student needs to remain on campus over a break, he or she would typically need to explain the reasons, which are often painful, to a university employee who is likely a stranger. If this were to happen at, say, Northeastern, all a student would need to say is, ”I’m part of the Wily Network.” Because the university employee knows that student has a support network, the hurdles are removed and permission is granted.
  • One student went to Argentina for her January term, and lost her wallet along the way in Chile. She called me, and even though the motto is, “Do with, don’t do for,” I was able to transfer money into her bank account. This grateful student actually made a video about her experience to thank Wily.
  • Another student, working at an internship in New York, requested a root canal for her birthday. The appointment happened to fall on the day of her birthday. She took the bus to Boston where her coach met her, took her for a little birthday lunch, and then to her appointment. (As an aside, Harvard Dental provided the surgery free of charge.) “No one’s ever come to a doctor’s appointment with me,” she said.

This last story clearly illustrates on many levels what most of us take for granted. There are so many aspects of privilege that we are oblivious to, but Wily Scholars notice. Think of the ubiquitous cell phone. One of our students, who cannot afford a phone, can be sitting at lunch while one next to her is chatting with her mom who is asking how her exam went, or how her paper is coming along. Today, with the concern over the spread of coronavirus, parents are calling, sending hand sanitizers, etc. Often, Wily Scholars don’t have these connections to family. We ensure each of our students is given a thermometer at the beginning of the term, and coaches now carry lozenges and hand sanitizer.

How is the TPC grant being used, and what is the impact of the funding?

The Wily Network now has 55 Scholars, 5 more than we would have had without the grant. We still have a waiting list. The grant has also allowed us to work on our strategic plan. We are pleased to say we now have a plan for the next five years, and we are ready to go. We have codified our core values, and are using them in all facets of our program. Finally, we have created a financial forecast model, which will help us plan as we look ahead.

What else do you hope to gain from your relationship with TPC? Are there other ways that TPC members could help you?

TPC has been very supportive, providing volunteers for our Speakers Series, a volunteer for video help, and women who came to wrap holiday presents for our Scholars. Other avenues for support:

  • To host the Care Package program
  • We are always looking for photographers to take pictures at community events
  • Each TPC member tell 10 people who are not members about the Wily Network

What is most gratifying about your work?

An unanticipated consequence is that on weekends I have 55 Scholars I think and worry about. I, along with our Coaches, care so deeply about each student, and they are so grateful.