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May 12, 2008

Graduates Include Young Woman Who Refused to Fail

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – One day, when sisters Allison and Katherine Bellew, aged 10 and 11, returned home from school to their California apartment, they found it completely empty. They soon learned that their father, with whom they lived, sold their belongings to fund his cocaine addiction.

By that age, the sisters had learned how to pack quickly for sudden moves, shuffling between the homes of various family members, from Hawaii to Virginia, Texas and California.

Now, at age 21, Allison is packing to move again—this time for a decidedly more positive reason—after completing four years as a student at Smith, one of the longest stretches of time that she has ever resided in a single place. 

On Sunday, May 18, Bellew will receive her bachelor’s degree in computer science during Smith's 130th commencement ceremony, an accomplishment that defies the odds after her disjointed upbringing. She will begin her job as a software programmer at Microsoft in Seattle a few weeks later.

Not long after that troubled stint at their father’s apartment, Allison and Katherine were placed in foster care. The sisters are among the tiny fraction—just 3 percent—of foster children who earn college degrees, according to the Pew Research Center.

"My sister and I wanted to have a better future so we were self-disciplined enough to figure out what exactly we need to do to get there,” said Allison during a recent interview with a Newsweek columnist and reporter for the Public Radio International program “Against the Odds.”

“I was lucky not to fall through the cracks like so many foster kids I’ve met,” she added.  “And, I chose a college where I could not fall through the cracks. I knew people would notice if I did.”

Coincidentally, Katherine will also march in commencement ceremonies this season, graduating from California Polytechnic State University on June 14. "We have been through everything together so its only natural that we graduate together," said Katherine, who is currently working at an internship in preparation for veterinary school, which she anticipates she'll begin in another year.

Because Allison is aware that her story is difficult to imagine, she doesn’t often volunteer to tell it. Bellew’s closest Smith professors, with whom she conducted research for several years, were surprised to learn about her background when contacted for the radio interview.

She and her sister have lived in so many different places their story could be illustrated using pinpoints on a map.

Or, her story could be told by listing the many family members with whom Allison and Katherine resided before the options were exhausted. Tragically, both the first aunt with whom they lived, and the last aunt with whom they lived before foster care, committed suicide.

There are parts of Bellew’s life that read like a newspaper account of foster care fraud—a foster parent taking the state subsidies and spending them on herself, not Allison and Katherine, for one example. And, there are parts that could be chronicled in police coverage—their disappearance when their mother took them and ran away from their father, and their mother's eventual abandonment of the sisters.

While many youths struggle and flounder in similar dire circumstances, Allison and Katherine learned how to adapt to new schools and living situations. They immersed themselves in activities that gave them time away from whatever they called “home” at the moment.

“It was always much better being at school than being at home,” recalled Allison. “In high school, I spent 35 to 40 hours a week at school in addition to the course time.”

Along with struggle, Allison had some positive experiences. She fondly remembers riding horses with one of her aunts, playing guitar with another, and walking to school with her sister in Hawaii.

And the sisters fortunately received reinforcement from their foster care caseworker, who instilled the message that if they worked hard they could accomplish anything. “Just telling people ‘you can do it’ really makes a difference,” said Bellew.

After graduation, Allison will take a two-week vacation with her sister—the only person who shares her history and with whom she speaks daily— before starting at Microsoft. 

“Computer science is so predictable and orderly—my life was not,” said Allison. “Either I became focused and grounded—everything my parents and family weren’t—or fail.”

To hear Allison's story, it becomes clear that, while her life circumstances were not within her control when she was growing up, she has gained control over her life as an adult. Katherine noted, "we are closer now then we have ever been and I think being apart has helped us realize how important we are to each other."

“Your family is what you make of it and I’m just making my big family,” added Allison, who will have 14 guests in the audience at commencement. “My plan is to do what makes me happy.”


Office of College Relations
Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Kristen Cole
Media Relations Director
T (413) 585-2190
F (413) 585-2174

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