What makes a leader? According to Janet Perez-Molina, counselor at the UCI Student Success Initiatives, and program counselor/coordinator for the FYRE Scholars program that supports foster youth in their transition to college, it starts with empathy.

Though Janet is not a former foster youth, the FYRE students motivate her every single day.

“I want to provide a space where students who have been in the foster care system, have support and guidance here at UCI. I have had the honor to learn about their experience and it only motivates me to help them find success and happiness.”

FYRE is an academic success program to aid former foster youth in their transition to university life and now, with Janet at the helm, it is a fully comprehensive program.

“We are really building community. I have learned how important consistency is in the lives of students who are former foster youth and that is what we are trying to do. We want to guide them, support them, celebrate them, and also be there when life happens and things don’t work out. It is beautiful to see them develop and grow into their potential. I see so many of our FYRE students grow as leaders. It is a privilege to do the type of work that I do.”

FYRE Scholars and FYRE Peer Mentors, know how important it is to have support in their lives, so it is no wonder why so many are drawn to community service.  

“In November, we did a joint event with Dr. Jacklyn Lewis a professor of Cognitive Sciences, who mentors foster youth from Operation Independence from Olive Crest in Orange County. Our FYRE Scholars were able to share their stories and their inspiring narratives. These types of interactions, where former foster youth have a safe space to interact with one another, talk about how college life is and how hard the transition is, helps them grow into their new identity as a college student.” 

During spring break, when most college students are planning their getaway, we had FYRE scholars organize a dinner at Orangewood, a foster youth facility. Foster youth at Orangewood were able to interact with UCI students and could have open and honest conversations about college life and ask about concerns they had. 

Integrated into the SSI programming, Janet has helped to champion the FYRE Peer Mentors program, where current FYRE scholars who have been in the program for 2 – 3 years, can apply for a paid position to manage a caseload of students who they check in with regularly about classes, study skills and what to expect. Mainly, these FYRE Peer Mentors are there to help other former foster youth students with navigating the college experience. 

FYRE Scholars participants have also established the first ever foster student ambassador club organization here at UCI. As a student led effort, it caters to building another community and safe space to provide resources and allies for foster students. It is another example of FYRE leaders who want to make a difference. 

Janet kept referring to leadership traits among the group of FYRE Scholars, so we asked her what the top 10 leadership traits are that she most commonly finds in FYRE Peer Mentors.

They start the conversations

FYRE Mentors are ready and willing to ask for support even if it is not clear what the support is. The ability to have the confidence to ask for help, is a key trait we look for in our mentors because we know that when they are out there representing the program, they will take initiative and make sure that they are involved and leading by example. 

They are informed 

When FYRE Mentors are meeting with their mentees, they make sure that they know the information about resources so that when they identify a need to be met, they are able to share resources in real time, This way mentees leave with the help they need, as opposed to being told that we will get back to them. 

Foster youth identify is important and they want to make it visible

Being willing to share their narrative for different opportunities, FYRE Mentors are first to raise their hands for speaking at events like the First Generation Faculty Mixers, speaking as part of a panel or workshop and are always willing to be featured on websites, in articles and on social media. Our mentors are ready to position themselves to let the community know they are former foster youth and they are excited to share their stories. Their willingness to share, helps create more awareness to the communities here at UCI. They are very proud of their past and this shows incredible strength and leadership. 

They have empathy

When FYRE Mentors connect with foster youth, they understand where foster youth are coming from. They don’t have to explain themselves. The common experience shared brings more patience and a warmness to the interactions. Our mentors know what questions to ask and not to ask because they are so familiar with the journey of being a foster youth. 

They are resourceful

When FYRE Mentors get a “no,” they do not get discouraged but instead focus on finding other avenues to access resources. Foster youth students bring tremendous strength and experiential wealth to the table and once they have learned how to navigate the ins and outs of college, they are well positioned to streamline resources for newer students who are still trying to adjust. 

They want to be an ally, because they have experienced it

FYRE Mentors who have multiple years of the UCI college experience know the importance of allies on campus and they know how important it is to have a sense of community here at UCI. They make themselves available to other students and are pillars of the peer to peer support systems for former foster youth.

Committed to community

FYRE Mentors do outreach to current high school foster youth and they work with nonprofits to help engage current foster youth to come to campus. Providing information and resources on how to make it to college helps extend the sense of community and commitment to younger generations. By sharing their experiences, they want to be able to let future students know what is possible and what UCI has to offer. 

They are authentic

FYRE Mentors want to educate and make sure that they can speak from experience when they educate. They are willing to let their guard down and provide personal insight, letting new students get an inside look into their individual journey. This creates authentic personal connections with their mentees.

Time management pros

FYRE Mentors have multiple roles. Not only are they students and mentors but they have jobs and some have families. During the week, they have to juggle multiple aspects of their lives, all while focusing on being there for the FYRE community. In order to do this, they have to master time management. They have made mistakes with taking on too much, or too little and they have learned by experience, what the right mixture is for them. And in doing so, they can speak to the value of time management. 

When asked why donors should consider giving to the FYRE programming, Janet said “nothing should be holding back these incredible students from achieving their dreams of success at UCI and in their careers. FYRE gives our students a community to help them navigate college and prepares them with the skills they need to be successful after they graduate. Most of our students don’t come in with a network that they can lean on, at FYRE we are proud to become their family.”

To learn more about how you can help support Student Success Initiative programs like FYRE, click here