Alexa Hudson ’04
Director, University of Utah
First Star Academy
Salt Lake City, UT
“What keeps our students coming back is the love they have for each other, for the staff, and for feeling like they are a part of something.”
When Alexa Hudson meets incoming students at the University of Utah’s First Star Academy, she knows all too well the odds stacked against them. Part of a nationwide non profit consortium, First Star is a college-readiness program for high school students in foster care, a population whose drop-out rate is 50 percent. Just 3 percent go on to college. Once these kids turn 18 and age out of the foster care support system, their prospects grow bleaker still: a quarter become homeless, and two-thirds of the boys and a third of the girls end up in prison.
First Star, by providing summer residencies on university campuses, once-a-month Saturday classes, and regular outreach and support, is able to change that downward trajectory, notes Hudson, the Utah Academy’s director since July 2018 (it launched in 2017). While her program has not yet had a graduating class, statistics from the group’s 11 other Academies are striking: 98 percent of students complete high school, and 91 percent go on to college.
“It’s all about relationships,” explains Hudson, who oversees a summer staff of some two dozen teachers, coaches, and educational specialists. “What keeps our students coming back is the love they have for each other, for the staff, and for feeling like they are a part of something.”
Hudson previously specialized in outdoor and experiential education, teaching in Alaska for a time before moving to Utah. While there, she earned her B.A. in anthropology (she also has a master’s in creative writing and pedagogy), and began teaching at Westminster College, where she is still an adjunct professor. After Williston, she had attended Wesleyan University but left in her sophomore year after her father’s death, an event she says gave her insight into “how trauma can derail an education.”
At First Star, Hudson and her staff emphasize education, life skills, and self-advocacy to counter a foster system that can be similarly disruptive. Foster youth are frequently required to change schools, ending up years behind their peers academically. First Star, founded by educator and filmmaker Peter Samuelson in 1999, offers the stability and support many desperately need. “They stay with us through all four years of their high school time, and we are with them regardless of changing placements or getting adopted or getting reunified with their biological families,” Hudson explains. “We can be fairly involved in their lives, troubleshooting any things that may arise that cause academic instability.”
In her work building her school’s community, Hudson says she reflects often on her experience at Williston. “I think a lot about the respect and privilege that I experienced between staff and students,” she says. “When I was there, it was something I took for granted and now understand to be something special. It existed at Williston to a very high degree and it impacted my sense of self, my confidence, and the idea that I’m respectable and capable. And that’s what we are trying to emulate here.”
Next up for Hudson: launching a new First Star program at the university to help students as they transition to college—and to provide support until graduation.