Smith Renaissance Society supports achievement of independent students

Unique program fosters community and boasts a long list of impressive graduates

Bill Dickinson
Bill Dickinson (Cowell, '68, philosophy), a one-time foster youth, created the Smith Renaissance Society to support other UCSC students who are on their own. He's being honored with the UCSC Foundation Fiat Lux Award at the Scholarship Benefit Dinner, February 25.

As the cost of a University of California education has tripled since 1999, a modest but unique program at UC Santa Cruz has shown remarkable success in helping retain and graduate independent students – former foster youth, wards of the court, homeless youth, orphans, or others who are on their own.

Founded in 1999 as the Page and Eloise Smith Scholastic Society, it was California’s first UC-based comprehensive path to college admission for foster youths and other independent students.

The program provides students with scholarships, but more significantly, says founder Bill Dickinson (Cowell, '68, philosophy) it provides a self-perpetuating community of support. Over the past 13 years, 232 students have participated, including 67 currently enrolled. With 122 graduates and 12 transfers to other colleges, the graduation rate of Smith Collegiate Fellows, as they are known, is higher than the UC and UCSC average. Only 25 are no longer attending and did not receive a degree. 

It's the community

The scholarships are small, about $1,000 per student. "It's not the money," said Dickinson. "It's the community.

"I have always loved Margaret Mead's idea that a small group of committed people can change the world," he said. "I learned at UCSC to take an idea and not just say 'isn't that a nice idea' but ask how do you actually go live it."

For his vision and success, Dickinson will be honored with the UC Santa Cruz Fiat Lux Award at the campus's ninth Scholarship Benefit Dinner, Saturday, February 25 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. The award is presented to alumni and friends who have demonstrated outstanding achievement, dedication, and service in support of the university’s programs and goals.

Dickinson recalls that as the 30th reunion of UCSC's Pioneer Class approached, he wanted to "start a little scholarship" as a living memorial to Page Smith, the historian and founding Cowell College provost, and his artist wife, Eloise. 

Restoring dignity

The Smiths had been instrumental in Dickinson's growth from a teenager, who at age 15 left a foster care system that took away his dignity, into a college student who had it restored.

A classmate challenged him. "It's not enough to give money to honor Page Smith," she said. "You need to show up and be Page Smith." Part of being Page Smith is living the motto Smith coined for Cowell College: "Pursuit of truth in the company of friends." It's the motto of the Smith Society, too.

Now called the Smith Renaissance Society, it relies on the occasional grant and donations from supporters. It includes a volunteer mentor for any Smith student who would like one. The mentors – there are 33 this year – are UCSC alumni, staff, and faculty, who are supported by other dedicated staff members in the admissions, financial aid, and Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS) offices.

Though the Smith Scholarships are relatively small, Smith Collegiate Fellows are usually eligible for significant financial aid from a variety of other sources, facilitated by UCSC staff.

"We have an incredibly loyal group of volunteers, mentors, and donors who give very freely of their time, love, and money," Dickinson said.

Paying forward

A key to the program's continued success is the notion of "paying forward." A prime example is alumnus Deutron Kebebew (Kresge, '03, electrical engineering).  "He's like a son to me," said Dickinson.

Kebebew, a native of Ethiopia, was put into the foster care system at age 14 and was one of the first to become involved with the Smith Society soon after he enrolled at UCSC. He later founded College Camp, which lets high school-age foster-care students stay at UCSC for two nights, attend class, spend time with UCSC students who are former foster youth, and learn about the logistics, possibilities, and challenges of college life.

Currently, he is project director for PAPAS, a Santa Cruz County-based organization that supports fathers' active involvement with their families.

The list of successful Smith graduates is long, with teachers, scholars, actors, social workers, and filmmakers. Among them, Shaeleya Miller (Cowell, '07, sociology) who is working on her Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara with a research focus on the challenges faced by homeless, gay foster youth.

Another, Matilda Stubbs (Porter, '05, anthropology), who worked for the Girl Scouts after graduation, is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Northwestern University with a focus on foster and homeless youth.

"It's the ripple effect," says Dickinson, " what students go on to do. We're a wonderful investment."

The 2012 UCSC Scholarship Benefit Dinner will be held on February 25 at the Fairmont Hotel’s Regency Ballroom in San Jose. A reception will begin at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. The public is welcome. A complimentary shuttle service will be available from Santa Cruz to San Jose. For tickets or more information, contact the UCSC Special Events Office, go to the Scholarship Benefit Dinner web site , or call (831) 459-5003.