Smith Society celebrates 20 years and unparalleled success

On its 20th anniversary, the Smith Society pays tribute to a remarkable intergenerational community that has provided social mobility and a sense of family, making a college degree possible for hundreds of students

Smith Society fellows at a 2017 reunion
A Smith Society reunion in 2017. The growing cohort of Smith Society fellows gathers each year. Photo courtesy of the Smith Society.
An unlikely success story is on display every week in a gathering around a long table at Cowell College’s dining hall.

The students, volunteers, and staff exchanging hugs and conversation over nachos are all fellows of the Smith Society. While its main focus is former foster youths, Smith serves students from a range of adverse childhood experiences.

According to Casey Family Programs, only 2.5 percent of children who grow up in foster care graduate from a four-year college, while fewer than 2 percent of youth formerly in foster care complete a bachelor’s degree before the age of 25, compared with 24 percent of the general population.

On Alumni Weekend, at the end of April, the Smith Society celebrated its 20th anniversary, while at the same time commemorating an extraordinary record: In contrast to that small percentage of foster youth nationwide who graduate from college, nearly all 483 Smith fellows over 20 years are on track to graduate or have earned a degree.

‘Instant inclusion’

Emily Stone met her mentor, emeritus history professor Gary Miles, at a luncheon when she first joined the group.

“I was asking him questions about Smith and we just literally ended up telling each other our life stories,” Stone says. Miles, who was head of the Smith Society mentor program, offered to be her mentor on the spot. “I was like, ‘Oh cool! Instant inclusion.’”

That inclusion—being welcomed into in a community that understands what it means to grow up without traditional family support—is what many Smith Society alumni credit with their success at UC Santa Cruz.

Smith started in 1999, when Bill Dickinson (Cowell ‘68, philosophy) offered a scholarship that went to three students who had been in the foster system, naming it for Page and Eloise Smith, Cowell’s founding provost and his wife. A couple years later, Dickinson established the Smith Society.

$200,000 matching gift

Dickinson hopes the anniversary will bring out new financial support. Smith’s scholarships, work-study, and other services are funded by private donations. A group of donors has put up a $200,000 matching gift, seeking to endow funding indefinitely.

The Smith Society directly addresses challenges that might otherwise become big obstacles. Scholarships help with finances. Work-study positions help fellows graduate with valuable job experience. Smith arranged permission for students who might be homeless to stay in their dorm rooms during school breaks.

Matilda Stubbs, one of the first fellows, recently completed a Ph.D. at Northwestern University and trains social workers. Stubbs (Porter ‘05, anthropology) says the key to the Smith Society’s effectiveness is bringing together students and alumni with common experiences.

“From the first meeting,” she says, “I felt a really profound sense of belonging, of understanding.”

It was a polar opposite from the bureaucracy and alienation Stubbs experienced moving from home to home as a foster youth. When she arrived on campus, she was dumbfounded when Smith invited her to join. Then she met with the other fellows and found a community that understood her background.

Since graduating, she has continued participating as a “senior fellow,” contributing to the cross-generational community that was important to her.

By bringing students together with alumni of all ages, Dickinson was drawing on an experience that was transformational for him. He came to UC Santa Cruz the year it opened, when a few hundred students shared a campus of a handful of buildings with faculty of all academic disciplines. Among them were Cowell College Provost Page Smith and his wife, artist Eloise Smith.

The Smiths were dedicated to nurturing community relationships among the new faculty and students of Cowell. Page Smith cared deeply for his students, Dickinson says. That care came in the form of life-changing guidance.

“He used his authority to connect you to what might move you along in your path in life,” Dickinson says “What I loved about going to Cowell is I left here feeling full of my own strengths and a sense of dignity.”

‘Leading with your heart, reaching out, lifting as you climb’

At the weekly luncheon, across the table from from Stone, Cheryl Jones dives deep into conversation with one student after another, getting news about their lives, checking on their progress with classes.

Jones has been a part of Smith since it started. As a member of the staff in student support, she helped disburse the first scholarships. When it grew into a scholastic society, she helped with outreach to new students. Now retired, she volunteers.

“I’ve learned so much from our students,” Jones says. “Leading with your heart, reaching out, lifting as you climb. The majority want to help younger youth facing similar challenges to them.”

Nearby, Miguelcloid Reniva (Kresge ‘21, cognitive science) says that when he arrived at UC Santa Cruz, his background in the foster system was a source of alienation. With Smith, he found people with whom he could talk openly about his experience.

“At first I thought it was something I shouldn’t talk about,” he says. “I got used to saying I’m proudly foster youth.”

For Emily Stone, being a part of the Smith Society has meant adopting something similar to a family. The luncheons are a big part of that.

“It’s like having a Thanksgiving dinner every week with a bunch of aunts and uncles,” Stone says.