Foster youth get a taste of college at a special summer academy at UCLA
By Claudia Luther August 05, 2011 Category: Campus News
For five weeks this summer, two dozen entering ninth graders have been taking part in a college preparatory program on the UCLA campus in Westwood. Nothing unusual there — UCLA hosts many programs for middle and high school students who are thinking ahead to what they need to do to be ready to enter college.
But the First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Summer Academy, which ended Aug. 5 with a joyous "graduation," was different in every respect from any program UCLA or any other university has ever done. The five-week, residential immersion program is among the first such programs ever designed exclusively for foster youth, a miniscule number of whom ever move beyond high school to earn a two-year or four-year degree.
The program grew out of the experiences of UCLA's growing community of students who have been in foster homes; it is estimated that more than 250 now attend UCLA, after succeeding in the highly competitive application process. Three years ago, a group of these students joined forces to form the Bruin Guardian Scholars program, a peer network that supports foster youth. Guardian Scholars works in partnership with UCLA's Academic Advancement Program and the Bruin Resource Center, which focuses on all students but in particular on groups, like foster youth, that are faced with special challenges to staying in college.
Last summer, with the support of a grant from the University of California Office of the President, UCLA held its first-ever campus outreach program geared specifically for foster youth, bringing to the campus 23 soon-to-be ninth graders, most of them 14 years old, for a three-day weekend in July. That program was so successful that it raised hopes that an even more extensive program could be offered, said Janina Montero, UCLA vice chancellor for student affairs, whose office oversaw the 2010 effort.
Then along came Peter Samuelson, president and co-founder of First Star, a charity based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on abused and neglected children. First Star's ambitions were even greater: to some day create a residential boarding school for foster youth to prepare them for college. UCLA proposed a summer academy "as something that would give us the opportunity to test our theory and our intuition," Montero said.
"We have tremendous and generous resources on campus, and this clearly part of our mission," she said. "It's a chance to do something that is transformative for a group of students and give them access to higher education and really take hold of their lives."
Samuelson, an alumnus of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, did the fundraising for the project and, as Montero said, "the cheerleading." Samuelson said he got involved because he was appalled at how few foster youth attended or graduated from college.
"It's unacceptable," he said. "These are our children. These are wards of the taxpayer, wards of the rest of us. We have to do right by them. And we can do it — this is not rocket science. We can save lives, we can save money. It's a win-win."
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services endorsed the academy as a way to afford foster youth "opportunities that would otherwise not be available."
Many other parts of the campus enthusiastically worked to make the effort a reality: Montero's Office of Student Affairs, including the Bruin Resource Center, the Office of Residential Life, Cultural and Recreational Affairs, the Arthur Ashe Center for Student Health and the Early Academic Outreach Program; the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies' Center X program, which works with schools and teachers in the community; the Luskin School of Public Affairs, which is doing an efficacy study; and even the Office of Students with Disabilities, which stepped in to help when one of the foster youths slipped while dancing and suffered a hairline fracture of her foot.
Financial support for the academy came from the Mario Batali Foundation, the Hasbro Children's Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, Sage Publications, the College Board and the California Community Foundation. One huge plus for the foster youths: They would earn college credit for academic classes they took.
As a result of careful planning on everyone's part, on the morning of June 30, 2011, 15 boys and 15 girls began arriving at a former sorority house across the street from the Westwood campus to begin their adventure. They arrived as strangers to each other and left as friends who were so close that they felt like siblings.
Wally Kappeler, the academy's director and a former middle school vice principal, said that compared with other incoming ninth graders, the participants were in some ways exactly the same.
"They're loveable, they're huggable, they want to impress adults, they want to make us proud of them," he said. "But they are so much farther along the life path because of the experiences they've dealt with and have been able overcome. They've almost been victorious in battle. And you get a certain maturity when you conquer some of these situations, which results in being more compassionate and loving, more protective than any other students I've been involved with."
Just as strong are the bonds with the academy's staff, who were specially selected to serve as role models for the ninth graders. Among them were several who had been foster children themselves.
"Growing up, I didn’t have anyone to turn to," said Julian Ramirez, a peer counselor to academy participants who is a senior at UCLA. "A lot of these kids don't have anybody really consistent to say, 'You can do this, you can be who you want to be.' Here, we give them the opportunity to learn what they want to do with themselves."
One of the foster parents is Gerard Au, information technology director at UCLA's School of Nursing and past president of the UCLA Staff Assembly. His and his partner's foster son found out about the program through the youth's social worker, and they jumped at the chance.
"These are very talented and smart kids and with a little bit of guidance can do great things," Au said. "To have this program and earn college credit before they enter high school makes them feel accomplished."
The academy certainly has been no piece of cake. The schedule was jammed with math and social media classes, as well as numerous recreational and other workshops, speakers, discussion groups and field trips, all designed to increase both the kids' interest in and their preparation for college. Not all of the foster children who started out made it to the end. The program sent home six boys who, as Kappeler said, "put themselves in a dangerous situation" and compromised the program.
"It was important to let them know that we cared enough about them that we were not going to just overlook it," Kappeler said. But the boys, though upset at the turn of events, will be continuing in the daytime weekend sessions during the year. "They made a mistake," Kappeler said. "But we have a tight relationship with them where they know we are a resource for them."
Kappeler, who oversaw a staff of residential advisers and peer counselors, said that getting through the program was "a tremendous accomplishment." The participants worked on problem resolution, decision-making, goal-setting and anger management strategies — "all skills we're hoping they'll use not only in the academy but also throughout high school, throughout life," Kappeler said.
"The whole crux of what we want to do here is help them advocate for themselves, to say what their needs are and have their needs met — to come up with possible solutions and go after those solutions," Kappeler said.
Kappeler said that at first the participants did not grasp the investment that each of these adults was making in their lives.
"But they are starting to realize that there are all these caring adults who believe in them and want to invest in them, and think they’re worth their time," he said.
Five very fast weeks after the foster youth arrived on campus, they cheered each other as they crossed the finish line. "I'm a Bruin now," one of them said.
To a person, they expressed thanks to Samuelson, Kappeler, Montero and the UCLA staff that saw them through what one called "an awesome experience."
"See you next month," one graduate promised, referring to the ongoing monthly gatherings on campus that are ahead.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who strongly supported the program, told the graduates: "I hope you feel the sense of possibility. You have the opportunity to experience, to know, that there's life after hitting a bump in the road." He added that he knew that each of the students there could write a book about their lives so far, "but the book I'm looking forward to reading is the book you write looking forward."
Meanwhile, plans are afoot for a follow-up residential program next year when these ninth graders will be moving on to 10th grade. And, if all goes well, another cohort of ninth graders will also be brought to campus.