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August 28, 2006

Cabrillo College transfer student taps everything UCSC has to offer

By Jennifer McNulty

Shaeleya Miller has always loved school, but she hit a rough patch during high school that delayed her college career.

Photo: Shaeleya Miller
For her senior thesis, Shaeleya Miller is researching the highly charged debate among feminists over exotic dance.
Photo: Helbard Alkhassadeh

Now 23, she is making up for lost time, taking four classes a quarter and earning a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.

No one would guess it hasn't come easy for Miller, a Santa Cruz native who's gearing up for her senior year at UCSC.

A former foster youth, Miller took the high school proficiency exam at 16 and has been on her own since she was 17.

"I was always really into school when I was little, but I didn’t feel particularly challenged during high school," said Miller, who rediscovered her passion for learning at Cabrillo College. Last fall, she enrolled at UCSC, where she is majoring in sociology with an emphasis on feminist studies.

Like a fish takes to water, Miller was meant for the university. She recently won a coveted Regents Scholarship, the university's most prestigious award, which is presented for outstanding academic achievement. She reads sociology books in her free time and is thinking seriously about graduate school. "I love school. I love theory!" she exclaimed, almost apologetically.

Miller's path to UCSC was far from smooth, but her focus and determination kept her moving toward her goal. She has benefited from many of the resources available to students, including merit-based scholarships and two programs specifically designed for foster youth and former foster children.

Miller remembers receiving her first bill from the university last August. "I didn't have any money, but I said, 'I'm going. I've got really good grades, and I’m sure there's some way I’ll be able to pay this really large bill,' " she recalled.

Sure enough, an attorney in the law office where Miller was working referred her to a social worker, who contacted the UCSC Financial Aid Office. Miller applied for scholarships, grants, and work-study opportunities, and she learned about the Page and Eloise Smith Scholastic Society and the Renaissance Scholars Program, campus programs devoted to former foster youth.

Miller is so grateful for the help she has received that she keeps a mental list of people she credits with helping her get to UCSC. "I’ve been slowly contacting them to tell them how much they helped me," she said.

At UCSC, one of the biggest surprises she's had is discovering the availability of faculty and staff. "I expected it to be challenging, which it has been, but I wasn’t expecting to get so much genuine, wonderful support," said Miller.

Professors are receptive and responsive, graduate students have been generous with their time, and staff have helped her secure financial aid and other critical resources, including note-takers who helped her through a shoulder injury that precluded writing. "On campus, I’ve been fortunate to meet people who really got to know me, saw my interests, and encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities," said Miller.

Miller singles out Melanie DuPuis, associate professor of sociology, for high praise. "She listened to me, helped me identify my goals, and helped me make a plan to achieve them," said Miller, who is working as a research assistant for DuPuis over the summer.

For her senior thesis, Miller is researching the highly charged debate among feminists over exotic dance, which has been embraced by a new wave of "pro-sex" feminist scholars who emerged after the antipornography crusades of the 1980s. Miller is investigating the generational dynamics of a resurgence of polarization that emerged around exotic dance in Santa Cruz after a downtown retailer proposed a holiday window display featuring live dancers. The ensuing outcry, including a threat of vandalism, prompted the shop owner to ultimately withdraw the proposal. But the controversy split the local feminist community, and Miller is conducting focus groups as part of a case study for her project.

"The controversy brought up all the questions about what it means to be a feminist, with some women saying it's about free expression and others saying you can't be a feminist and behave in that manner," said Miller. "The two sides are completely divided, yet younger women in my focus group seem to think there's room for common ground. Is there room for both views? Or is the women's movement as split today as it was 20 years ago?"

Miller's willingness to dive into a controversial topic for her research project is an indication of the spirited enthusiasm she brings to her work. She has never considered herself a "computer geek" but nevertheless mastered the latest web-site-building technology and built a site for the Renaissance Scholars Program during a three-quarter course offered by the Global Information Internship Program (GIIP) through the Sociology Department. The popular program trains students in information technology and places them in internships with nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations. This summer, Miller helped coordinate a GIIP training camp for community organizations, and she will manage the program during her senior year--even though her Regents Scholarship renders the part-time job optional rather than mandatory.

"Last year at this time, I had no idea I'd be a research assistant, program manager, or web master, and now I’m doing it all," said Miller. "It’s pretty crazy."

But crazy in a good way.


This story is part of an ongoing Currents series highlighting the outstanding educational opportunities and achievements of UCSC students. To read other articles in the series, go to Profiles in Excellence.

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