Major grant supports UC Santa Cruz foster youth program

An innovative UC Santa Cruz program that supports the college aspirations of orphans, foster youth, wards of the court, and homeless or runaway youth has received $150,000, the first installment of a three-year $450,000 grant request, from the Stuart Foundation.

The funding is an enormous boost for the Page and Eloise Smith Scholastic Society, an alumni-driven, volunteer-based program established in 1999 that provides financial, academic, and emotional support to students before and during their years at UCSC.

"In the five short years since it was established, the Smith Society has reached out to nearly 100 young people who are 'on their own,' helping them navigate the bureaucracy of the university and become successful students," said Francisco J. Hernandez, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UCSC. "This collaboration with the Stuart Foundation will allow us to build a model program that can be replicated at other universities and colleges." With the grant, the society will become an established university program operating under the Student Affairs Division's Services for Transer & Re-Entry Students (STARS) office.

The Page and Eloise Smith Scholastic Society (PESSS) was established by Bill Dickinson, one of UCSC's first graduates and a veteran of the foster care system, to honor the founding provost of Cowell College and his wife. Dickinson's goal was to make higher education a realistic option for foster youth, most of whom grow up without anyone making their education a top priority. His mission resonated with fellow UCSC alumni, faculty, and staff, who banded together to nurture the educational aspirations of youth who live largely on their own, particularly foster youth.

"What drives me is the imaginative, loving, daring quality of community I had as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz," said Dickinson. "That's what taught me to discover my own greatness and dare to go after my dreams. The Smith Society is, I think, a remarkable embodiment of that original spirit."

Adult members of the society share a commitment to providing students, called Collegiate Fellows, with "access to excellence," said Dickinson, noting that, for example, a UCSC film major spent a recent academic quarter working on documentary filmmaker Michael Moore's newest production, Fahrenheit 911, thanks to the assistance of faculty member Paul Ortiz, and an astrophysics major is enjoying the mentorship of David Dorfan, a senior UCSC physicist who, said Dickinson, embodies the best of the UCSC spirit.

"More than financial support, we provide community, and we ask Collegiate Fellows to help us reach out to younger kids and pull them into the community," said Dickinson. "I have always loved Cowell College's motto--'the pursuit of truth in the company of friends.' That's what we're about."

The Stuart Foundation grant will support the expansion of the society's work through the hiring of a program coordinator and a part-time project assistant. With the grant, PESSS will serve approximately 40 current UCSC students, 40 community college or high school students who are in the process of applying to UCSC, and will expand its outreach efforts to an additional 200 to 300 precollege youth, largely in high school.

"What foster kids don't have is anyone who says, 'I'll believe in you. I'll encourage you to have a dream. I'll be sure you understand the college admission process. I'll hang in with you. I'll nag you. I'll remind you of deadlines,'" explained Dickinson. "'And after you get into college, I'll still be there for you.' Foster kids, for the most part, don't have anybody paying attention to their education, so that's what we're doing."

The San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation helps the children and youth of California and Washington states by strengthening public systems and community supports that contribute to children's development.