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Graduate speaks from experience as a strong voice for young people in foster care

Ivy Smith
Ivy Smith with the iconic Boise State “B.” Smith graduated with a double major and is headed to graduate school.

Ivy Smith is a member of the one percent – but not in the usual definition of that term that speaks to ease, privilege and deep pockets. Smith is among the one percent of young people in foster care in the U.S. who succeed in earning a college degree.

Smith entered the Idaho foster care system when she was 13. She lived in foster homes and a group home before coming to Boise State as a freshman. Defying the odds, she graduated in May with a double major in environmental studies and political science. This fall, she’ll begin the master’s program in public administration at Boise State.

Heart’s work

One of Smith’s last projects as an undergraduate had a personal resonance. She researched what happens to young people when the foster system releases them at age 18, whether or not they have a safe and stable living situation. She turned up troubling numbers. Nationally, one in four youth will become homeless within two months of leaving foster care. Seventy percent of female foster youth will become pregnant within two years. One in three will be incarcerated. Only 50 percent of foster youth have either their high school diploma or GED by the time they turn 18.

Some transitional services are available in Idaho through the state and nonprofit agencies. Still, said Smith, “Foster youth are not being adequately prepared for adulthood.”

Smith believes in raising the age of youth eligible for foster care in Idaho from 18 to 21 to provide them with more resources for housing, health and education. She met with legislators earlier this year to share her research and make her case. Current budget constraints make it unlikely that there will be any new legislation in the upcoming session, even though the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare also favors the change and some federal money is available, said Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the department.

Nonetheless, Smith intends to continue her advocacy for legislation and will be a member of a new state workgroup comprising current and former foster youth and others.

Improving the foster care system for other young people is what Smith calls her “heart’s work.”

Smith's mortar board.
The numbers on the ribbons of Smith’s mortar board refer to the fact that just 3 percent of young people in foster care go to college. Only 1 percent graduate.

“It’s not easy. It’s very emotional,” said Smith. “But I remind myself that it is my responsibility and duty.”

Her advocacy has never come at the expense of her own career aspirations, she said.

“I think I just push myself extra hard to accomplish both. My heart’s work and career path are not dissimilar. They’re both giving me the experience to one day work in public policy.”

Outreach and advocacy

Smith, an avid hiker, paddle boarder, skier and fan of the musical “Hamilton,” has many strengths, among them a sense of self preservation and an ability to find allies.

“Even when I was in foster care, I knew a home wouldn’t necessarily have been a source of stability for me,” said Smith. “Instead, I’ve sought stability through academics. And I’ve always loved community.”

In 2016, Smith became a board member of the Idaho Foster Youth Advisory Board. The group, she said, helps educate about and advocate for foster care policies. It helps train social workers and foster parents and provides feedback to the Department of Health and Welfare about foster program guidelines.

“I started on that board when I was about to age out of the foster care system and I wanted to find a way to take everything I was feeling and have a part in making a better system for future youth,” said Smith.

She has organized food drives and fundraisers. She worked at Bogus Basin as a ski instructor to earn money for college. She became president of the Boise State College Democrats and helped organize an inclusion and diversity debate on campus. In 2017, thanks to her work on the foster advisory board, she traveled to Washington, D.C. as an Idaho representative at a national conference on foster care. The trip included rallying on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to ask for better training for foster families.

She’s found support through organizations like Casey Family Programs in Boise. The nonprofit provides services for foster youth or a case worker who can help young people find other assistance through community organizations.

She’s grateful, too, to the university.

Choosing the hard path

Smith was an Impact Scholar, part of the Boise State program that supports students in foster care by providing a point of contact at the university as well as scholarship money. She was one of three Impact Scholar graduates in 2020.

“I’ve known Ivy from before she came to Boise State,” said Anna Moreshead, assistant dean of students who directs the Impact Scholars program. Moreshead was at an outreach event when Smith, then a high school student, walked up, told Moreshead that she wanted to come to Boise State, and asked what she needed to do.

“That is a great example of how much Ivy values her education and takes initiative to make things happen. I was so thrilled that she chose Boise State. Because she could have gone anywhere,” said Moreshead.

Smith, talented as she was, had a challenging first year in college, said Moreshead.

“But she followed through. She still met with me, still took my phone calls, even when she didn’t have good things to report. She was honest about where she was and the next steps she was taking to get back on track,” said Moreshead.

“Time and time again I saw her choose to do the hard work. That’s why she’s gotten to where she is today.”

A good team

Smith had to fight more than most of her classmates to even attend Boise State. She was a 17-year-old freshman when she joined a Living Learning community on campus – the program that meshes residence hall life with academics and live-in professors. Smith was still a minor so the judge in her child protection case ruled that she could not live in the dorms because they were outside the foster system. Smith’s Casey caseworker, as well as associate professor Kelly Arispe, a Living Learning faculty member in residence, and Moreshead went to court with Smith.

“We fought with the judge for hours,” said Smith, “but we won.”

The case, she said, set a precedent for foster youth in Idaho who are not yet 18, but who want to be part of campus life.

“It was rewarding to feel like I had such a good team,” said Smith.

Ivy Smith
In her rare downtime, Smith likes to hang out with her close circle of friends, a group of people as passionate about their causes as she is, she said.

Arispe described Smith as an unusually determined and passionate student, one with a gift for connecting other people to organizations and opportunities.

“By 17, Ivy had volunteered more and been part of more activities than many people are at the end of their college careers,” said Arispe.

She recalled going to court with Smith. At the time she was still navigating her role as faculty in residence.

“The whole purpose of faculty in residence is to support all students, especially first generation students. And here comes Ivy. Not only is she that, but she has this hard background. Her success is the true American story,” said Arispe.

The university classified Smith as a first generation student through the Trio Rising Scholars program because her birth parents, though they attended college, have not been part of her life since her early teens.

“We need to elevate stories like Ivy’s so people can identify with her and see themselves. She’s forging a path for other foster kids who might not think college is for them,” said Arispe.

Work and scholarship

As a freshman, Smith got a job as an office administrative assistant in Boise State’s Department of Computer Science. She has worked there ever since and will continue as a graduate student. She also is development director of the nonpartisan PAC Next Generation Leadership Idaho, which works to bridge the gap for young people between serving political internships and entering the career track. The two jobs added up to full-time employment over the summer, said Smith.

During her academic career, Smith received scholarships from the Casey Family Foundation for undergraduate and graduate programs. She received scholarships from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, the Idaho Youth Ranch, the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship, the Impact Scholars Program and more.

“So many application essays to write,” said Smith. It was worth it, she said. She graduated debt-free.

– Story by Anna Webb