StoryCruz: A feeling of home

Founder of UC Santa Cruz's Smith Renaissance Society talks with two alumni of the group about their experiences and moving on to his next project

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Smith alumni ("Smithies") Kimbo Butcher (Porter '15, art), left, and Vanessa Reidel (Oakes '14, psychology), right, with Smith Renaissance Society founder Bill Dickinson. (Photo by Gwen Jourdonnais)

When Bill Dickinson founded the Page and Eloise Smith Scholastic Society in 1999, it was the first of its kind in the UC system—a program offering a pathway to admission to UC Santa Cruz for foster youths and other independent students such as wards of the court, homeless youth, and orphans; a supportive community after they arrive; and an ongoing network of belonging upon graduation.

After 17 years of guiding and fundraising for the program, Dickinson (Cowell '68, philosophy) is handing off full responsibility to a board, led by president Shawn Cervantes (Oakes '13, psychology), and stepping into the background while he launches a new project.

In conversation with Smith alumni ("Smithies") Kimbo Butcher (Porter '15, art) and Vanessa Reidel (Oakes '14, psychology) for UC Santa Cruz's StoryCruz project, Dickinson describes how he started the society and his feelings at this emotional juncture as he moves into his next chapter.

Letting go of Smith is "really uncomfortable," he said. "I suppose I'm going through what parents go through with kids, which is, maybe it isn't going to be quite what I had in mind, and that's got to be OK, but boy it is hard."

Dickinson recalls that he started the program as a living memorial to Page Smith, the historian and founding Cowell College provost, and his artist wife, Eloise.

The Smiths had been instrumental in Dickinson's growth as a young adult. Having grown up in an orphanage and foster homes, going on his own when he was 16, Dickinson was one of the first students to arrive on the new UC Santa Cruz campus in 1965.

"The Smiths, together with the caring, competent, committed community they gathered, helped me make my way forward to an adult life of which I feel pretty proud," said Dickinson. "That is what we try to offer our students."

The Smith Renaissance Society, as it's now known, is remarkably successful—the graduation rate of alumni, called Smith Collegiate Fellows, is higher than the UC and UC Santa Cruz average.

For Reidel and Butcher, the program Dickinson started provided the family they'd never had.

"It's a place where I don't have to ever say who I was," said Reidel. "It's the ability to be me, and everything that I am, and not my past."

"Even though I still don't have a family, every time I go to a Smith event, I know there's a family there," said Butcher. "It's kind of like a time to catch up and feel at home."