I arrived at my first semester of college with my childhood best friend. We were just two 17 year olds, confused about where to park, trying to figure out how to carry my stuff up the hill on one of the hottest days in August. I remember being surrounded by parents filled with joy and pride moving their kids in. I finally said goodbye to my friend and sat in my dorm surrounded by boxes. Instead of unpacking and decorating my room, I read over an email in front of my laptop. I sat in fear as I read, “Our records indicate that you are not meeting SAP requirements and are currently ineligible for financial aid for the upcoming 2019–2020 academic year.”
I failed my first class over the summer before my first semester started. Instead of going out with friends to celebrate our first week on campus, my body was filled with stress, not knowing where to turn. I already felt like I didn’t belong here, and seeing this email confirmed it.
I had no idea how I was going to get through college. I couldn’t turn to my family; college was my way to a life of independence, stability, and opportunities. You see, I am one of the 3–4% of foster youth accepted into college. Since I did not have a family to turn to, I had to create my own support system. I was lucky enough to have my high school college advisor starting a position at the Cal Alumni Association, so I turned to Myrtha, who helped me relieve my stress by figuring out the paperwork that didn’t make sense to me. I was successfully able to get through Cal.
While I was able to figure out my financial aid and work towards my degree, I still felt a void, as if I didn’t belong on campus. I spent time with communities with similar cultural backgrounds, yet I still couldn’t fit in.
It wasn’t until conversing with a peer that I mentioned I was in foster care. Her face beamed with excitement as she described Berkeley Hope Scholars, a program that supports students impacted by the child welfare system, such as foster care, juvenile justice, adoption, kinship care, homeless youth, and many more. She walked me over to the community space after class. It is a small, 90-square-foot room with turquoise walls; fairy lights wrapping it, a bulletin board covered in Polaroid pictures of students in the program, and a circular table. Soon, this became a place where I would laugh, cry, and learn to receive and give care for the next four years of my college career.
I met students that I had seen around campus but never met. We sat around the circular table, sharing the challenges that no one else on campus seemed to understand. We approached each other with empathy and cared for each other. I made friendships through the program that helped me be more comfortable with my identity. It taught me not to be ashamed of being a foster youth, but rather to be empowered. To do something about it instead of remaining silent.
At that circular table, we talked about the lack of recognition of foster youth faced across the UC campus. We evaluated how being a UC student affects our happiness and well-being. Concerns arose regarding lack of belonging, housing problems, financial constraints, and the institution’s lack of guidance and support. In the community space, we created the first-ever foster youth research team at UC Berkeley, where we held our narratives. Even through COVID and Zoom, we checked in with each other and organized events that kept us motivated to spread awareness of our community.
Those conversations started something new. It created a sense of belonging for us. It motivated us to create projects surrounding foster youth awareness on campus. It created space for us to advocate for our needs. We wrote letters to the regent with demands over and over again, in hopes that the needs of foster youth would be addressed. Despite not hearing from the regents, my peers continue to evolve in many ways, like teaching art practices that empower foster youth to tell their stories, advocating for state funding, and continue spreading awareness on campus.
Looking back at my experience at Cal, I know that success does not come alone, as there will always be people to cheer you on and support you—support your passion so you can evolve towards a better self. I stand here today, proud to be a foster youth because my experiences allow me to be my authentic self. My peers and coordinators at Berkeley Hope Scholars empowered each other to reach our full potential. It is in that tiny room where we found our recognition.
I encourage all of you to pay attention and recognize Berkeley Hope Scholars and support their artwork, policy work, and presence on campus. I encourage the alumni, donors, and volunteers to get involved with Berkeley Hope Scholars to help other students realize that they, too, belong here and are worthy of compassion, support, lasting friendships, and achieving their full potential. Our community is constantly growing, and so many scholars are waiting for mentors to guide them to become stronger and more developed versions of themselves. Our community is waiting for a bigger space to feel seen and understood on the UC Berkeley campus.
I would also like to express my deepest appreciation to the Berkeley Hope Scholars program coordinator, Charly King Beavers, for showing me and our community continuous care. To Letha C. Ch’ien, thank you for being an amazing mentor and guiding me through difficult times. Thank you to Tanya from Students Rising Above, and Myrtha from the Alumni Scholars Program, for helping me through my college journey. Thank you to my teachers and professors, who have nourished my mind, and Dr. Jill Berrick for supporting my research which I’ll continue to pursue after graduating. Thank you to my UC Berkeley Mellon Mays community for empowering my ideas and helping me become a better writer.
I am extremely grateful to my amazing friends, Zunarah, Noelle, Adrienne, Tim, Sarah, and Victor, who have helped me find joy in many ways. To my amazing partner, Christian, for showing me the light during my darkest time.
I would also give a huge thank you to the donors and alumni team, as I was able to have fewer financial burdens when working toward my degree!
Students: If you would like to apply for The Achievement Award Program, visit the Cal Alumni Association Application Portal. Open only to prospective first years and junior transfers.