Ashley Williams moved 26 times and attended 23 different schools by the time she finished eighth grade.
It was not the ideal adolescence growing up in foster care, but Williams bucked the odds for someone like her to make it to college and also prosper as a UCLA sophomore with a 3.3 grade point average.
Williams recounted her life story before the UC Board of Regents at its November meeting during a presentation about the growing number of support programs the university provides for former foster youth.
"I am a product of rape. My father is unknown to me. I was in the foster care system because my mother was a drug addict and she physically and verbally abused my twin brother and me," Williams told the Regents. "I have worked hard to not allow my negative beginnings destroy my life."
More than 3,000 youth in California age out of the foster care system every year without having a permanent family to support them. Nationally, studies have shown that just 7 to 13 percent of foster youth pursue higher education. Of those who do go to college, only 2 percent obtain a bachelor's degree, compared with 24 percent for the general population, according to a Casey Family Programs report.
About 150 former foster youth enter UC each fall as new students and in recent years university support for them has increased, according to Judy Sakaki, UC's vice president for student affairs. In 2006, only two UC campuses had formal programs for foster youth. Now eight of the nine undergraduate campuses (Merced has a small foster population and does individual outreach) have programs to help ensure the success of former foster youth. That includes providing year-round housing, financial support, academic advising and career counseling, personal counseling, community engagement and assistance with planning transitions to both college and employment.
"We have a chance to be a source of stability, encouragement and guidance for this population," Sakaki said at the Regents meeting. "Giving them a gift of an education is a challenge which we must all embrace."
"I have worked hard to not allow my negative beginnings destroy my life."
— Ashley Williams,
The university has joined the California College Pathways Project, a partnership with the John Burton Foundation and the California State University system designed to increase the number of foster youth who succeed in higher education.
During the 2008-2009 academic year, approximately 300 students participated in UC programs that support former foster youth.
"This is an invisible population that needs our attention. Legislation and other efforts help the university to provide the guidance and support these students desperately need to develop into successful adults," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who as a member of the Board of Regents requested the November presentation on how UC supports former foster youth.
UC supported the passage of two recently enacted state laws designed to help former foster youths succeed in college.
Former foster youth now have an exemption from the one-year period required for establishing California residency to be eligible for in-state college fees. Generally, students who turn 18 are considered in-state as an extension of their parents' residency. This poses a problem for many foster youth whose birth parents live out of state or their whereabouts are unknown. Prior to the law's passage, many foster youth who turned 18 had to wait a year before they were considered residents.
Another new law gives current and former foster youth top priority for obtaining year-round student housing on college campuses. Most college students who are former foster youths don't have a home to return to during holidays and breaks, so housing is one of the key ways universities can offer support.
Even as important as a roof over their heads, many former foster youth lack adults in their lives who can nurture them and provide guidance.
"There are not a lot of genuine people in your life. No one seems to be interested in your success," said Colette Hottinger (see above), a UC Santa Cruz senior psychology major who was placed in the foster system as a baby and grew up in two different homes. "There's a difference between having family that cares and supports you and people who are court-ordered to be in your life."
She credits Mzao Waters, a counselor at Ohlone College in Fremont, for instilling her with the confidence needed to fulfill her goals. At the time, Hottinger said her GPA was 0.5, and she needed a new direction.
"He showed me that I wasn't giving myself enough credit and education was important for me to make the change that I wanted to make," Hottinger said.
At UC Santa Cruz, Hottinger is a member of the Smith Renaissance Society, which was founded as a scholarship in 1999 and has grown into a program that provides guidance counseling and mentors for former foster youth.
Mentoring can "sometimes be as simple as going to a movie once a month or a phone call," said Corinne Miller, director of UC Santa Cruz's Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students, the campus umbrella organization for Smith Renaissance. "In other instances the student becomes part of a family and goes on holidays and vacations with the mentor."
Smith Renaissance was the first formal program in the UC system for former foster youth and has 66 students participating currently.
"We can't take credit, but Santa Cruz in many ways provided a model" for other campuses, Miller said.
Hottinger's experience with Smith Renaissance mentors and others who "went above and beyond" inspired her to co-found a support organization for foster children. The Foster Youth Initiative pairs mentors who were in the foster system or have knowledge of it with foster kids in Santa Cruz middle schools.
"I couldn't have done it without being part of Smith," said Hottinger, who plans to pursue graduate studies and a career in social work with foster children.
Williams also is channeling her experiences and giving back to the community by helping to form a UCLA branch of the Guardian Scholars program, which provides guidance and mentors to former foster youth. Williams said the chapter is helping students navigate living as a college student, kind of "playing the role of a parent."
Williams said that through all her hardships, she focused on school and was fortunate to have the support of mentors to help her along the way. A sociology major, Williams plans to pursue graduate degrees in social work and education. "I want to find different ways to link education with foster youth," she said.
It was through another UCLA program, VIP Scholars, that Williams met her mentor, Jonli Tunstall, who "was the first person I ever met that actually cared about me," when she was 15. The pair grew close enough that, for a time when Williams was in high school, she lived with Tunstall, who is the director of VIP Scholars.
"She has come a very, very long way," Tunstall said of Williams. "It's been very gratifying to see her not just make it to UCLA, but excel here."