UAlbany Diversity Transformation Award Supports New Class of Self-Reliant Scholars

Students walk to class on the UAlbany academic podium.

By Liliana Cifuentes

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 7, 2024) - When the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in spring 2020, it derailed the plans of an initiative that gave disadvantaged students a platform to advocate for the resources and recognition they require. 

Four years later, thanks to a Diversity Transformation Award grant presented by the University at Albany’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion, efforts to support the self-reliant scholars initiative are back on track.

The term “self-reliant scholars,” devised by Associate Dean of Students Leandra Harris, refers to students who identify as orphans, wards of the state, or those with a history in the foster care system who encounter certain adversities in academic settings. The grant’s original purpose was to fund a dinner that would’ve bridged the gap between UAlbany’s 24 self-reliant scholars, the Foster Youth task force, and university partners. 

This year’s scholars, however, had a better idea — using the grant to fund care packages for incoming self-reliant scholars who will begin their studies at UAlbany in the fall.

“There have been times where we’ve had scholars at Collins Circle with everything they own in garbage bags,” said Harris. “This year’s group of students unanimously said they’d like to use the money to help students who are coming in.”

The care packages will consist of duffel bags filled with linens, toiletries, and other houseware items that will help students get started. With the help of Fostering Leaders of the World, a student-led group composed of self-reliant students, Harris wants to deliver the bags face-to-face as a foundation for building bonds that’ll last throughout their college careers.

Alexandria Sisti
Alexandria Sisti

Already, the initiative has done wonders for scholars like Alexandria Sisti, a junior majoring in history. She hopes this new chapter will quell the fears that are guaranteed to be felt by incoming students. 

“We’re working toward building that sense of community so people feel supported,” said Sisti. “Knowing that I can be part of an environment for incoming students is really important to me.” 

Kiley Rivera, a freshman majoring in anthropology, expressed similar sentiments.

Kiley Rivera
Kiley Rivera

“When I first came to UAlbany, I thought I’d be the only kid who supported themselves,” said Rivera. “Making the bags and having other kids in the self-reliance program deliver them shows new kids that there are others who are like them.” 

Rivera, who spent the majority of her childhood years in and out of the foster care system and in-house facilities, is the first in both her adoptive and biological family to have completed a full academic year of college. With her degree, she hopes to analyze and improve upon foster care services.

“What can we take from our foster care system to improve the lives of kids in other places?” said Rivera, who aims to answer these questions in her research. “What can we take from other countries’ foster care systems to better our own systems for our kids?”

With the grant, Harris hopes that the individual needs of every self-reliant scholar are addressed properly and that the relationship between scholars and task force members is redefined.

“This particular group has a higher level of need in certain areas than other students,” said Harris. “We need to have a system in place where we can take that information in and act on it.”