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Helping former foster youth achieve their potential at ASU

Bridging Success at ASU a safety net for foster youth transitioning to college.
ASU working to combat U.S. trend of low retention rates for former foster youth.
Students at ASU crowdsourcing an emergency fund for former foster youth.
February 29, 2016

Bridging Success provides robust safety net at every phase of students' college journey

ASU junior Nikki Burgess entered Arizona’s foster-care system when she was 15. Determined to better her situation by earning a university education, Burgess graduated from high school in three years at age 17 — only to find that her aspirations were discouraged. 

“My case manager wasn’t receptive of my going to a university. He wanted me to go to community college and stay with my foster parents, but I was not about to go down without a fight,” said Burgess emphatically, the fortitude that it took to follow her dream still evident in her voice. 

She secured admission to ASU, got a judge’s approval to move from a foster home to campus, and is thriving.

“In two and a half years, my life has completely changed for the better,” said the justice studies major, who is already making plans to attend graduate school.

She also works to inspire other foster alumni to achieve their goals at ASU, as a peer mentor in the university’s Bridging Success program

Bridging Success at ASU, a partnership between ASU’s University College and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, has programs and people in place to support foster youth in every phase of their college journey — and has rallied champions in key units across ASU who are also committed to help foster youth enroll in, transition to and successfully graduate from ASU. 

Getting the word out to the foster-care community that this robust safety net is in place was the aim of a daylong forum at ASU earlier this month.

More than 70 service providers who work with foster youth attended the Feb. 11 event “Conquering Barriers and Bridging Success for ASU Foster Care Alumni.”   

Bridging Success student panelists and Professor Lietz

ASU students Nikki Burgess, Dalé Vaughn, Desaray Klimenko and Breanna Carpenter speak to conference participants about their paths to the university and their positive experiences with the Bridging Success Program, on a panel moderated by professor and Associate Dean Cynthia Lietz. Photo by Laura Sposato/ASU

“These professionals all have a passion for helping youth and are in a unique position to help make the dream of a college education a reality,” said Jeanne Hanrahan, director of community outreach for University College and College of Letters and Sciences. 

“We organized the conference to share insights about what life is like for ASU students who have experienced care and to connect foster care-givers to some of the resources and people who can support them and the youth they work with as they make plans to attend college,” Hanrahan said.

An opening panel featured Burgess and three other current ASU students participating in Bridging Success, who spoke movingly about their paths and transitions to the university. They reiterated the importance of encouragement — someone to be there to say “hey, you can do this” and to help with the practical stuff. They stressed the need for more people to spread the word that there are resources out there to support their college journey.

Breakout sessions focused on nuts and bolts related to admission, transfer pathways, scholarships and financial aid, housing, major and career exploration — and all that the Bridging Success program has to offer, including a one-stop, resource-rich web portal. There was time to make personal connections and check out information tables during lunch.

For practitioners Chelsy Smith and Faith Brewster, who attended the conference as representatives from A Blessed Nest, the day was their first opportunity to learn about all the resources and support available at ASU for foster alumni and their advocates. 

“We didn’t know all these resources were available at ASU,” said Smith, who is house manager for a licensed group home caring and advocating for 10 children, ages 10 to 17. “The conference was a great experience and really opened our eyes to the unlimited resources available to our kids.”     

Brewster, who serves as educational liaison for each of the children, appreciated the session in which ASU Admissions staff laid out a timeline of key tasks to focus on between eighth grade and senior year in order to be college-ready. She also valued the chance to talk about ways ASU students might become involved, as part of service-learning and internship opportunities.  

“We could really use tutoring assistance and help to finance rewards for kids as they hit short-term educational goals, like doing homework,” she noted.

Support, connections, success: The ASU model

“Nationally, former foster youth have had low retention and graduation rates, but at ASU and in Arizona we are working diligently to change that. We are determined to make a difference,” said University College Dean Duane Roen, in his opening welcome to conference participants. 

“More than 800 youth age out of foster care in Arizona each year,” added Cynthia Lietz, associate dean in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, in her presentation on the research underpinning Bridging Success. “The research nationally says that nearly 80 percent of foster youth have dreams of coming to college, just like their non-foster peers. But only 10 percent actually enroll and only 3 percent complete a degree, as compared to 35 percent of the U.S. population overall.

“There’s a place for you to make a difference in changing those numbers,” Lietz told conference participants. 

In 2013, Arizona Senate Bill 1208 mandated that youth who were in foster care on or after their 16th birthday would be eligible for college tuition waivers until age 23.

“ASU said, if these students are coming to our campuses, what can we do to wrap around them and help them succeed?” said Bridging Success coordinator Justine Cheung in explaining the program’s origins.

Building on ASU’s expertise in supporting student success and partnering to address community needs, University College and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions secured a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust in 2014, which connects Bridging Success programs at ASU and the Maricopa County Community College District.

Bridging Success at ASU “opened for business” after a year of planning and recruiting, in fall 2015.

“Any ASU student who self-identifies as having experienced foster care may participate, taking advantage of the personal coaching and referrals, workshops and social events meant to build community,” said Cheung, who is responsible for most of the day-to-day efforts of the program.

More than 240 former foster youth, ranging in age from 17 to 50 — 30 percent of them in ASU Online degrees — are involved in ASU’s program. 

“In my 25 years in social work, as a practitioner and professor, I’ve never seen people from so many sectors all coming together around one issue."
— Cynthia Lietz, associate dean, College of Public Service and Community Solutions

An award from ASU’s Women and Philanthropy supports Bridging Success Early Start in August — six intense days focused on easing the initial academic and social transition to ASU.

Seventeen first-time freshmen completed Bridging Success Early Start in fall 2015. There is funding to support 50 former foster youth in fall 2016.

“Really, the best part of Bridging Success is the wonderful community of enthusiastic and motivated students we have participating,” Cheung said. “They have quickly become a welcoming, supportive network of friendship and guidance to their peers. I can’t say enough about the foster alumni in this program!”

Other ASU students have gotten involved, too. Lietz’s ProMod students have focused their course projects this semester on supporting foster youth. Using ASU’s crowdfunding platform Pitchfunder, they are in the final push of a campaign to raise a $10,000 emergency fund for Bridging Success students at ASU, which ends March 7 at 11:59 p.m.*

“Sometimes even small amounts are enough to solve a problem and keep students at ASU who might leave due to financial barriers,” said Lietz.  

She is awed by the response and support that Bridging Success has engendered.

“In my 25 years in social work, as a practitioner and professor, I’ve never seen people from so many sectors all coming together around one issue: from government, business, social service agencies, philanthropy, and higher education,” Lietz said. “We’re moving the needle in a way that none of us could do by ourselves.” 

ASU is co-hosting a college fair for foster youth on Saturday, April 2, at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, in collaboration with the Maricopa Community Colleges and community and state agencies. For more information, visit as the date approaches.

Registration for the August 2016 Bridging Success Early Start program, for foster youth entering ASU as freshmen or transfer students, will begin in mid-March.  

*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed the original end date of the campaign, March 1. But the campaign has been extended.

Spike Lee to host live Q&A at ASU

Iconic director to help usher in university's new Film Spark program

February 29, 2016

Spike Lee's projects and statements tend to attract attention. And in the last three months the iconic film director and cultural voice has been making waves, again.

The man who crafted “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” has received an Academy Honorary Award; released his controversial gun control film, “Chi-Raq,” as Amazon Studio’s first original movie; and ignited media buzz by announcing that he would skip the Oscars because their nominations lacked diversity. Spike Lee Spike Lee directed the films "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X," "Old Boy" and many others. His latest release is "Chi-Raq." Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons Download Full Image

Just days after shunning the Oscars, Lee will be at ASU Gammage at 7 p.m. Friday, March 4, to host a live, free Q&A session with ASU students and audience members. The discussion will focus on contemporary issues including gun control and race relations as well as Lee’s visionary work in a culture dominated by re-makes, sequels and franchised superheroes.

The presentation, “Why We Need Spike Lee — and All Visionary Artists,” is the inaugural event sponsored by ASU’s Film Spark, a recently-formalized program to give students Hollywood experience. The program, based in ASU’s California Center in Santa Monica, has been informally organizing events and connecting students with internships and filmmaking opportunities but was fully launched in January 2016 with an official endorsement from ASU President Michael Crow.

“Programs like Film Spark demonstrate why ASU was ranked the country’s most innovative school by U.S. World and News Report,” said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “Bringing a world renowned and groundbreaking filmmaker like Spike Lee to campus to talk about the future of movies is exactly what the largest and most comprehensive arts and design school in the country should be doing.”

“I saw Spike Lee speak as an undergraduate and graduate student,” said Adam Collis, a professor in the Herberger Institute's School of Film, Dance and Theatre, and the director of ASU Film Spark. “The experience was life changing. The opportunity to bring this free event to the ASU community as well as to the general public is a great honor and demonstrates how ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts fulfills its mission to transform society and project all voices.”

In alignment with that mission, ASU Film Spark has three primary goals that situate it at intersection of the entertainment industry and academia: 

• Career Accelerator: to advance the careers of ASU students and alumni in the entertainment industry

• Innovation Hub: to develop ideas and practices for a better industry, culture and society

• Southern California Outreach Arm: to expand awareness of ASU for the industry and prospective high school students

Film Spark began as a simple video-conference with a filmmaker that grew into a mission to connect ASU with the best filmmakers and executives in the world.

“After our first video-conference, my students went crazy,” Collis said. “It was obvious that we could deliver a lot of value by connecting them with successful filmmakers.”

Since then, ASU students have had the opportunity to speak with four Oscar-winners, five Oscar-nominees, three studio chiefs and the presidents of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America, as well as numerous blockbuster producers and award-winning directors.

Film Spark’s Feature Film Internship Initiative gave 85 ASU students and 15 recent alumni the chance to learn filmmaking on an actual feature film set with an Oscar-winner cast and crew on the production of “Car Dogs,” which will be released in September of this year.

Major upcoming Film Spark activities include:

• 2016 Feature Film Internship Project: For the fourth year in a row, students have the opportunity to learn how to prep, film, edit and publicize a feature film alongside veteran Hollywood professionals as interns on a feature film set. This year’s project is an innovative documentary executive produced by three-time Oscar winner Mark Jonathan Harris.

• Hollywood Invades Tempe!: A screening/Q&A series featuring “Jurassic Park” and special effects artist Mike Trcic.

• Coffee with Howard: Gives film students one-on-one career consultations with Emmy-nominated writer-producer and ASU alum Howard Burkons.

• Hollywood Alumni Hotline: Offers young alums facing critical career decisions the chance to get advice from veteran industry professionals.

• All for One: A national gathering to promote gender equality both behind and in front of the cameras.

• Welcome To Hollywood: An ongoing class that gives students a 50,000-foot view of the entertainment industry while giving them the chance to learn from working Hollywood professionals who visit the class.

To reserve your ticket for “Why We Need Spike Lee” visit This event is free and open to the public and will be covered on Twitter using the hashtag #SpikeLeeASU.

To learn more about ASU Film Spark, visit To stay up on current events and programming, follow ASUFilmSpark on Facebook and Twitter.