Overcoming Hurdles - From Foster Youth to College President

Monday, November 21, 2022
Kimberly as a young teen sitting on a couch with her foster mother

Kimberly Britt (left) with her group home foster mother

Black and white image of athletes huddled in conversation with their coach

Coach Jim Settle talks with Kimberly Britt (center) and other Charleston Southern University cross-country track team members ahead of a meet.

Charleston Southern University Cross-Country team photo in black and white

Kimberly Britt (far right) with her Charleston Southern University cross-country and track teammates

two friends with arms around each other in a college dorm posing for picture

Kimberly Britt (right) with a roommate at Charleston Southern University

Kimberly Britt standing outside in a cap and gown next to a car at her foster home

Kimberly Britt in high school graduation regalia at her foster home

Dr. Kimberly Britt and PC student Ryan Young standing outside the Physical Sciences building at Phoenix College

Dr. Kimberly Britt with PC student Ryan Young. During the summer of 2022, Ryan was accepted into the prestigious Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Foster Youth Internship program, where he spent nine weeks interning with U.S. Representative Raul M. Grijalva in Washington, DC

Dr. Kimberly Britt sitting at a conference table

Dr. Kimberly Britt - "I should never have gone to college, much less lead one; but here I am. I'm living proof that you can achieve anything you set your mind to."

A Difficult Start

By age eight, Kimberly Britt had been beaten, knocked to the floor, and kicked in the ribs by a man wearing steel-toed boots. He was angry; so very angry.  She had also experienced sexual abuse.  And, sometimes, the only food in the house was her baby sister’s cereal, which as Kimberly recalled, tasted like cardboard.

Most days, Kimberly was hurting from the abuse. With her esteem gone, she was painfully shy, and left to wonder why life was this way. Eventually, the trauma and pain were too much to handle, and Kimberly swallowed 30 aspirin.  The aspirin was buffered, so the pills didn't all dissolve at once. Although the goal of taking the pills was to end her own life, the experience actually ended up saving Kimberly’s life when a teacher came to the hospital and asked the fateful question: “Is he hurting you?”

After five days in the intensive care unit, Kimberly went home from the hospital. The police came and interviewed Kimberly and her mother, separately. After a while, her mother came into the room crying, saying how sorry she was and that she would come for Kimberly one day. The police loaded everything Kimberly owned into two black garbage bags and Kimberly was taken to a group home.

Adjusting to a New World

After meeting her house parents and other children who had endured unspeakable things, Kimberly recalls thinking the children seemed happy in their new home, which gave Kimberly hope. “They had adjusted and found a way to survive; I didn’t know how, but they had”, Kimberly thought. She knew that if they could somehow be okay, so could she. She found hope that day. They became a family, all races, with harsh stories, but they became close. Doing homework, playing, and going to church together. A special group of kids, living in a special home.

Kimberly found a way to cope and some sense of solace, spending hours on the swing listening to music with her headphones. The swinging and the music helped her look toward the future, to a better life, happiness, and to the success Kimberly was determined to achieve. Looking back on this time, Kimberly says they must have packed hope and determination in her bags that night. The higher she went on that swing, the more she could see better days ahead.

Kimberly’s mother had the opportunity to visit, but she never came, leaving Kimberly with a terrible sense of rejection that she could not understand. Eventually, the caseworker told Kimberly that her mother had decided not to leave the step-father, and so Kimberly was to be placed in permanent foster care. Kimberly was crushed.  The darkness and brokenness returned; Kimberly’s grades fell, and she dropped out of honors classes. The rejection triggered her to withdraw again, and she felt reduced to almost nothing.

Building from Within

With the two same black trash bags, Kimberly set off to live with her foster family, where she would have to rebuild herself, again. And, slowly but surely, she did rebuild herself, skateboarding and go-cart-racing with her new foster brothers. Her foster mom was determined to see Kimberly go to college, and helped her secure admission and a work study job at nearby Charleston Southern University (CSU, in South Carolina).  The staff in the business office at CSU became her new expanded family, and Kimberly recalls always having a place to go during breaks, and feeling loved. In the summer, Kimberly worked full-time, staying on campus, taking classes.

Racing for Her Future

And, she joined the track and cross-country team. Kimberly says that coach Jim Settle changed her life forever. Not only did he help shave four minutes off her mile running time and see Kimberly win her first race, he also taught Kimberly to believe in herself, and that she should only “settle” for being number one.

Initially, Kimberly majored in secondary education, but was inspired by her English teacher to become a college professor. With her bachelor’s degree completed, Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, offered in-state tuition if Kimberly would teach while pursuing a master’s degree.  Kimberly recalls telling coach Settle that she was getting all B’s in graduate school. The coach told her, “You’ll make A‘s when B’s are no longer acceptable to you.”  Kimberly found hope and determination with the help of many people, most especially Coach Settle, who helped her transform from victim to survivor.

“For the first time, my purpose became greater than my fear, and I was free.” - Kimberly Britt

After finishing her master’s degree in three semesters, Britt bought her first car, and eventually accepted a teaching position at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, returning to South Carolina. She pursued her doctorate degree at the University of South Carolina, just to see if she could do it. “I should never have finished high school, much less gone to college,” Britt says. The resilience and grit she learned as a child established a foundation of strength that she continues to build upon.

While working on her doctoral dissertation, the committee suggested that she interview the chancellor of the Virginia community college system. The chancellor challenged Britt to complete her degree and then come serve in the Virginia college system. Britt took him up on the offer, serving in various positions within the Virginia community college system, working to help the most underserved students be successful.  Nationally, approximately two or three percent of foster youth earn an associate degree. Less than one half a percent earns a graduate degree, and fewer than that earn a doctorate degree.

Healing Through Running

Dr. Britt overcame another major personal tragedy following the loss of her oldest daughter Hunter to suicide, in 2020. Britt started running again to heal herself and to help push through the pain. Though she has endured much, Dr. Britt remains a positive force for change and openly shares her life story with others in the hopes to motivate and uplift those around her. She still hears Coach Settle’s voice in her head, convincing her that she can overcome anything.

In the summer of 2021, Dr. Kimberly Britt was named Phoenix College’s (PC) Vice President of Academic Affairs. Dr. Britt, a self-professed “rare bird”, is determined that with the right support and processes, foster students, and all students who experience poverty and trauma, can achieve anything they desire. In her tenure as vice president, Dr. Britt focused on engaging faculty and identifying barriers facing underserved students.

“Colleges must routinely scrutinize structural barriers to equity and invest in equity-minded policies, practices, and behaviors that lead to success for all students.  If we do not root out these barriers, if we are not intentional in this scrutiny, we will fail students.”  - Dr. Britt

Impressive Strides

Dr. Britt became Phoenix College’s eighth president after a comprehensive national search In June of this year.

“When I look at the Phoenix College student body, I see a lot of students like me; students who carry a dream and are waiting for someone to convince them that they can succeed. And I also see many students at PC that my daughter Hunter would have loved.  Every time she met a student who was from another country, who did not look like her, she learned to communicate with them in their language; she embraced their world and met them where they were.  Hunter and my daughter Ana are my greatest joys, and I honor them - and everyone who has helped me succeed - in the work I do. I am here to help students have the opportunities I’ve had. I’m here to help students escape poverty, to defy the statistics, and to overcome hurdles they see and the ones that their experiences place on them.

I believe access to a high-quality education and an inclusive environment is the right of all individuals and imperative for the continued advancement of a strong democracy and workforce. I also believe higher education institutions have an obligation to work toward equity for their students. Equity is grounded in the principle of fairness. In higher education, equity refers to ensuring that each student receives what they need to be successful through the intentional design of the college experience.” - Dr. Britt

Reaching Back

This fall, Dr. Britt launched an initiative called Britt’s BEARS: Brave, Extraordinary And Resilient Students, to engage and mentor foster students enrolled at Phoenix College. Prior to the pandemic, more than 120 foster students were enrolled at PC. This fall, fewer than 20 foster students are enrolled. Dr. Britt, PC’s leadership team, faculty, and student affairs teams are reaching out to previously enrolled students with the goals of helping students continue their education, and implementing coaching and mentoring programs to support foster students and other underserved and underrepresented students.

Britt’s BEARS compliments Maricopa County Community College’s Bridging Success Program, which supports foster youth across Maricopa County. At fall convocation, Dr. Britt challenged faculty and staff to lead the way in helping foster youth - and all students - build community and create success at Phoenix College. The Britt’s BEARS program launched with a luncheon, where students, coaches, mentors and President Britt reflected on shared experiences and charted their paths for the coming year. Dr. Britt shared words of encouragement. 

“I should never have gone to college, much less lead one; but here I am. I’m living proof that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.” - Dr. Britt

Dr. Britt remains in contact with many of the people who helped and loved her along the way; foster parents and brothers, professors, and most especially Coach Settle. She encourages students to get involved, connect with peers, faculty and staff, join clubs, and build family at Phoenix College. Dr. Britt adds that “The academic journey is so much more than achieving a certificate or a degree; and the things we treasure and remember most are the personal connections we make along the way.” Britt's BEARS programming includes interactive co-curricular activities planned throughout the year to support students and to build community.  If you want to learn more about the Bridging Success and the Britt’s BEARS Program, visit phoenixcollege.edu/bridging-success.  If you would like to support the Britt’s BEARS Program, visit phoenixcollege.edu/FOCUS.