As an incoming freshman two years ago, Quanice Hawkins received quite a windfall when she moved into a Unit 1 residence hall: Brand-new bedding, lamps, a robe and slippers, towels, a backpack, and other essentials were stacked high in her dorm room.
This warm welcome was orchestrated by Berkeley staff who pitched in $1,500 of their own money to help Hawkins and several other students who arrived at Berkeley without parental or financial support. These young adults are considered “independent” students because they are orphans, foster youth, or otherwise lacking support from a parent.
The welcome Hawkins and other independent students received began as a grassroots effort that has evolved into a fledgling program, the Cal Independent Scholars Network (CISN). Through CISN, Hawkins received help with everything from choosing the right shade of purple for her comforter to getting to campus from the airport.
“I had everything I needed the first day I moved in,” recalls Hawkins, a soft-spoken student from Inglewood, Calif. And she knew what she’d be getting, having been invited to select each donated item online.
Residential and Student Service Programs staffers Michelle Kniffin and Nancy Jurich spearheaded the endeavor, inspired by the story of Kimberly Armstrong ’06, who had been in the foster-care system. Armstrong arrived at Berkeley by bus as an incoming freshman with just a duffel bag. After watching her roommate unpack her many new belongings, then go to dinner with her picture-perfect family, Armstrong cried herself to sleep that night.
Kniffin shared Armstrong’s story with fellow staff and was “flooded with e-mails” from colleagues willing to donate money or supplies. With the help of the Financial Aid Office, Kniffin and Jurich located incoming students in need and invited them by e-mail to participate in the program. All said yes. Staff and student volunteers delivered supplies to the students’ rooms before they arrived.
“We did it with more heart than money,” says Jurich of the program’s first year, when staff donations covered room furnishings for two freshmen and academic supplies for eight others. But times are changing: For the past two years, alumnus Fred Selinger ’61 donated enough to cover room furnishings and academic supplies for 12 freshmen. This year, Cal parents Gary and Allison Beckman made a five-year pledge to fund a part-time staff position for the program. And in May, Deborah Lowe Martinez ’76 a Cal parent and child welfare attorney, was hired as the program’s coordinator.
One thing hasn’t changed: Participants must agree to serve as mentors to future independent students. “Students understand and appreciate that this is not charity,” Kniffin says. “It’s a pay-it-forward program.” Support for the program’s 21 students comes from a dedicated group of mentors and volunteers throughout the campus. Each student is matched with a faculty, staff, alumni, or student mentor. That involvement begins in early August, before students come to campus. Mentors check in monthly with each student and update Martinez on any student’s needs or challenges.
Those check-ins proved useful for Nathan Earnest, a CISN participant who arrived on campus this fall. The Denver freshman spoke with mentor Mary Lindquist ’73 four times in his first two weeks at Berkeley, seeking feedback on topics including his class schedule. “Sometimes it was just a quick call to say, ‘I had a good day today,’” says Earnest, who plans to study mathematics and Arabic.
Clearly, the support he’s received goes far beyond supplies for his dorm room and the $200 he was given to buy books, notebooks, and pens at the student store. “She even baked me cookies,” Earnest says of his mentor. “She’s been like a second mother to me.”