How UCI’s FYRE Scholars Program Empowers Former Foster Youth

For third-year anthropology major Deana Polyvko, the start of her college experience at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) was marked by personal challenges. “I had financial insecurity during my first two years at UCI, as well as food insecurity and a lot of stress due to commuting and family issues,” she reveals.

Deana recalls how difficult it was to adapt to life on campus while simultaneously trying to make ends meet. At one point, the situation got so bad that she was forced to go without food. She remembers, “With little financial aid, I had a small budget for groceries, and I was skipping meals to manage.”

While Deana could have easily given up and put her dreams on hold, she persisted. With incredible personal strength and assistance from UCI’s Student Success Initiatives (SSI), Deana was able to push forward and find success.

Because UCI serves such a diverse student body, it offers a wide variety of unique programs to suit virtually every student’s needs. Units like SSI, which are part of the Division of Undergraduate Education, are dedicated to offering students the personal, academic, and professional support they need to succeed both at UCI and beyond. SSI is committed to serving student populations such as first-generation students, low-income students, transfer students, students with disabilities, current and former foster youth, and so many more.

In Deana’s case, she was able to join SSI’s Foster Youth Resilience in Education (FYRE) Scholars program. FYRE Scholars’ mission is to support the academic success and the personal well-being of UCI’s former and current foster youth. By providing a welcoming community and opportunities for educational and professional advancement, the program hopes to help foster youth thrive at UCI.

Deana first learned about FYRE Scholars after filling out her Statement of Intent to Register (SIR) in preparation for her freshman year. On this document, she specified that she had spent time in the foster care system.  After her SIR was accepted, Deana was contacted by UCI’s FYRE Scholars counselor and program coordinator Janet Perez-Molina. As she learned about all the services and resources that she could access through the program, Deana was excited to accept the invitation.

The support Deana received through FYRE Scholars helped her manage the personal challenges she faced during her first year. For instance, Deana was able to overcome food insecurity through the connections offered by the program. With access to food through UCI’s FRESH Basic Needs Hub and the CalFresh nutrition assistance program, Deana says, “I was no longer worried that my health would be affected and prevent me from continuing my education.”

In addition to helping her address basic needs, FYRE Scholars, and the SSI community as a whole, offered Deana the support she needed to get through this difficult period in her life. “Things got easier over time as I had made friends in the program who I could reach out and talk to,” she explains. “I was not alone after my second year, and I felt like I had friends in the program.”

The program has also given Deana the opportunity to grow and start thinking about her future in meaningful ways. When she reflects back on when she first got involved with FYRE Scholars, Deana marvels at how much she has changed: 

When I first came to UCI and attended the FYRE events and workshops, I was timid and not involved with the program or with any other UCI organizations. However, getting to know everyone in the program and having one-on-one meetings with Janet gradually pushed me to do more and get involved. I have grown a lot since my first year.

Since then, Deana has come full circle. Now, she is a Peer Mentor who helps other FYRE Scholars participants access resources to support their academic and personal goals. She is also a member of Foster Student Ambassadors, an extension of FYRE for foster youth allies who want to help the foster youth community. 

According to Deana, her experience working as a Peer Mentor and Foster Student Ambassador has helped her understand the importance of FYRE Scholars and programs like it. She says, “It has given me a new appreciation for the program. Now I know the kind of work and effort that goes into helping the scholars and making sure they achieve their goals, have their needs met, and get the opportunity to socialize and relax.”

As someone who has personally worked with Deana, Janet is proud of how far she has come. “There’s something incredibly powerful about having a student come to us for support, watching her come into her own, and having her become part of the SSI team,” she explains. “Deana’s journey is inspiring and a testament to her resilience.”

Deana’s experience working with FYRE Scholars has been so impactful that it has helped her decide what she wants to do in the future. She says, “I want to pursue social work or counseling to help foster youth who need guidance and access to resources.”

With everything that FYRE Scholars and the SSI family has done for her, Deana is eager to recommend their services to other students. As she highlights the counseling and academic resources available through SSI, she also emphasizes that FYRE Scholars offers a safe space for students with diverse needs. 

Something that is unique and amazing about the FYRE Scholars program compared to other colleges and UCs, is that it’s the only program that accepts students no matter how many days they spent or what age they were in the system. Other colleges and government programs have a strict and limited definition of what it means to be a foster youth, but FYRE acknowledges your experiences and does not deny your identity. 

Are you a UCI student interested in learning more about SSI and the many programs, services, and resources it offers? Then visit their website here.