Professor and students

Building Trust from Trauma

From left, counselors Stephan Ambrose and Alkean Smith, director Maria Pia De Castro, and teacher Deborah Perez talk with Professor Kele Stewart.

By Michael Malone

From left, counselors Stephan Ambrose and Alkean Smith, director Maria Pia De Castro, and teacher Deborah Perez talk with Professor Kele Stewart.

Building Trust from Trauma

By Michael Malone
UM’s First Star Academy supports foster care youth.

Trust comes painstakingly slow for many foster care youth, those who spend their childhoods tossed from family to family as they tumble through “the system,” often wondering where “home” will be tomorrow.

Yet for the 20 rising 9th-graders in foster care that comprise the first cohort of the First Star Academy of the University of Miami, “home” has been the University’s Coral Gables campus for five weeks this summer. And trust—together with math, language arts, science and life-skills—has been the focus of their learning as part of this national model that provides a pathway to college for foster care youth.

Bringing such an ambitious program that works with at-risk youth to a college campus requires both visionary leadership and committed partners. The effort has been fueled by the passion of School of Law Professor Kele Stewart and the planning team of Professor Laura Kohn-Wood and Associate Professor Wendy Morrison-Cavendish, both in the School of Education and Human Development (SOEHD). 

“Everyone in our program has a trauma history,” Stewart said. “We talked with case managers to determine who would be a good fit. As long as the student fit the criteria and wanted to be here, we were determined to give everyone an opportunity.”

The teens spent their mornings strengthening academics; afternoons focused on life skills, with weekly field trip to see the murals in Wynwood, the Frost Science Museum, a dance performance, and doing a beach clean-up. They ate in the Hecht Dining Hall and slept in the residential colleges.

The same group—with the potential to add 10 more students—returns for the next three summers. During the school year, UM staff from the School of Education and the School of Law will coordinate monthly Saturday meetings with the adolescents and their parents or caregivers while also providing educational advocacy support. The program is funded in this first phase by The Children’s Trust and by Our Kids of Miami Dade/Monroe.

The dramatic change of scenery, and the commitment and support of the UM team has yielded fast progress for many of the participants.

“You already see the wheels turning,” commented Stewart just a few weeks into the program. “They’re being exposed to a lot of different things, and the youth are very engaged, asking a lot of questions. Their questions are very empathetic and insightful. It’s been nice to see how they’re responding.”

“Meeting the students is huge. Now you have a face, a personality, a history to build around,” explained Morrison-Cavendish, whose research and expertise focuses on special education and juvenile justice education. “There is so much variability in their needs. Being able to meet with students and talk with them to explain that we’re going to be building this together…and to reinforce that this is a four-year program, that we are committing to them—that’s something they generally don’t hear.”

Kohn-Wood and Morrison-Cavendish have been instrumental in developing the design and research protocol for the program. The program promotes positive behaviors that will enable the teens to graduate high school, and enter and succeed in college. 

“We use our practice and research to apply to a community in need,” said Kohn-Wood. “Foster kids are one of the most vulnerable groups. It’s heartbreaking that there are federal dollars available to go to many youth, but they’re not able to take advantage of it.”

Federal and some state dollars are available for foster youth to attend college, but lacking the skills, the study habits, the support, they inevitably drop out. First Star seeks to lay a foundation for success.

Deborah Perez, a First Star counselor and UM alumna who is in the second year of her Ph.D. program at the U, understands the challenges the youth would face in navigating the transition to college without an oar of support.

A foster child herself, Perez was raised by her Cuban grandfather—she honors him with a tattoo of his youthful face on her left forearm. She grew up an overachiever, propelled by a drive to excel in one of Miami’s most under-served and impoverished neighborhoods. Perez served as a youth rep on several agency boards, including the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami. Former UM President Donna Shalala sat on the same board and took special notice of this incredible young leader. 

“You’re going to come to UM,” Shalala told her. Offered such an incredible opportunity, Perez chose to attend.

“The first weeks at college were a nightmare, I cried myself to sleep every night—no one to talk to, no one to advise me. I was a first-generation college kid,” Perez remembered. 

The First Star Academy is composed of a cadre of UM alumni and students who serve as teachers, advisors, and support staff. Program director Maria Pia De Castro, a UM alumna, adjunct, and former Miami-Dade County Public School teacher, is the only full-time staff.

“The kids see the unity and cohesiveness of our team—and it’s really good for them to see. It’s been a very positive experience,” said Pia De Castro, adding “we’ve had to prove ourselves from the beginning, to show that we’re really here for them, that it’s not just a summer thing.”

Stephan Ambrose, a rising junior studying public health at UM, Ryan Severdija, a rising junior studying biology, and Alkean Smith, a student at Miami Dade College North, are the three male counselors.

Ambrose says, “The kids test us, wondering if we’re here for the money [stipend paid to counselors], to exploit them. ‘No, we’re here to help your self-awareness,’ we tell them.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster—wonderful some days, some days a tug of war, like we pull them and they pull us. We’ve got through to a couple of them, the others—we don’t ignore them, but we give them their space,” says Smith, noting that the discussion groups where personal stories are shared have had a big impact on him. “The other day one of the kids shared that his mom passed, and mine did too. I feel that.”

Nicole Swanson, a SOEHD alum, is one of the science teachers, and Ambar Alfaro, a School of Communication alumna, teaches language arts.

The summer residential program ended on Friday. The first family session is scheduled for early September to reconvene with the students after they’ve started their high school classes, and to meet with foster parents and caretakers to continue to build family bonds.

“This summer will be our baseline to decide where we really want to go, what these kids need and want, and to develop the plan for the partnerships that we want to develop,” says Morrison-Cavendish.

“We’re doing First Star for a reason, and this program has great potential. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to work on a project with people who are really committed to these students for the right reasons. This is really about the kids,” she adds.