How UCI’s FYRE Scholars Program Helps Students Find Community and Purpose

Joseph Spaziano; bottom, left.

At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), students are encouraged to learn, develop and grow. However, learning at UCI doesn’t just happen in classrooms and lecture halls—it takes place across campus as students engage with each other, faculty and staff. With every new connection that students make, they open themselves up to opportunities to explore different experiences and new perspectives. 

Units such as Student Success Initiatives (SSI) are dedicated to creating communities and fostering connections within UCI’s student population. At SSI, students from diverse backgrounds can come together to receive support, access resources and find an inclusive environment where their various struggles and life experiences are recognized and celebrated.

SSI is dedicated to serving a wide array of student populations, particularly focusing on underrepresented and traditionally underserved students. For instance, SSI offers specific programs to serve first-generation students, low-income students, students with disabilities, student parents and families, current and former foster youth and many others.

While SSI looks to empower student success both academically and personally, they are also committed to championing diversity, community, and awareness—values that recent UCI graduate Joseph Spaziano can attest to.

Throughout his undergraduate career, Joseph has been involved with SSI, specifically its Foster Youth Resilience in Education (FYRE) Scholars program. FYRE Scholars is dedicated to helping UCI students who are currently or were formerly in the foster care system achieve academic success and join a welcoming group of students with similar life experiences. 

During his first year at UCI, Joseph was personally invited to join the program by FYRE coordinator Janet Perez-Molina. As a FYRE scholar, Joseph received academic and personal support from FYRE student mentors and SSI staff.

Speaking on his experience, Joseph recalls:

“FYRE provided me with resources to aid in my success as I pursued my degree. I was offered priority registration and testing supplies and attended workshops that helped me with life skills and personal development. When classes got tough, I was given LARC scholarships so that I could attend tutoring sessions that saved me more than once.” 

Academic support wasn’t the assistance that Joseph received from the FYRE Scholars. He also relied on the program and Janet for help with personal struggles. For instance, when Joseph faced issues with the county and his health insurance, he was able to turn to his FYRE Scholars family for help.

“When I had issues outside of academia and communicated them to Janet, she always helped me to manage them,” he explains. “With her help, I was able to make sure I didn’t lose my insurance, and I was able to stay focused on my studies and reduce the anxiety produced by navigating the county’s health system on my own.”

Because Joseph was able to count on FYRE Scholars so much as a participant, he wanted to give back. When he learned about the opportunity to become a FYRE Peer Mentor and offer assistance to other UCI students who identified as current or former foster youth, he was eager to apply.

Through his work as a FYRE Peer Mentor, Joseph was able to personally connect with his mentees and play an active role in planning events to bring UCI’s foster youth together. He also worked to generate awareness of the challenges facing the community and find ways that FYRE Scholars could better support its students in the future.

While Joseph originally accepted the Peer Mentor position with the intention of serving other students and contributing to the community that had done so much for him, he was surprised to find how much he could learn from his mentees. 

While I had to manage my own struggles, troubleshooting my mentees’ struggles really put into perspective that we were all doing this together. It showed me that even the most difficult parts of our lives give us the experience that enabled us to help each other. It also opened my eyes to the challenges faced by this community and motivated me to participate in making it better. 

As he reflects on everything the FYRE Scholars program and the entire SSI family has done for him, Joseph is incredibly grateful. Now, as he has been accepted into a Ph.D. program at UCI’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, he is learning how he can continue supporting the current and former foster community as a graduate student. 

Joseph says, “My involvement with FYRE Scholars gave me a goal outside of my academic studies to guide my future endeavors. I found my community here, and it gave me purpose.”

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.