A UC Santa Barbara student says random acts of compassion led her from a life on the streets to writing and publishing

By Julia Cates

Justine Bethel relaxes at one of her favorite Isla Vista spots, Cajé Café.

Justine Bethel relaxes at one of her favorite Isla Vista spots, Cajé Café.

Justine Bethel is a UC Santa Barbara English major who within the span of eight years went from living as a homeless adolescent in San Diego to giving a well-received address at TEDxUCSB this spring.

After leaving an abusive household at a young age and entering the cycle of youth homelessness, Bethel was able to get off the streets, receive three associate’s degrees from the San Diego Community College District, and become financially stable by starting her own jewelry business before entering college at UCSB.

In her TED talk, she shared a series of short stories about important acts of kindness from strangers that helped turn her life around.

Humanities and Fine Arts had a chance to sit down with Bethel to talk about her TED talk experience, her journey to UCSB, and to hear her advice to other UCSB students.

Q. You are currently studying English at UCSB. What drew you to the English major?

A. I have an Associate’s degree in Biology and one in Humanities and one in English. I transferred on English. I’m doing English and the Environment here, which is like an environmental emphasis in English. So, Science writing, Environmental writing, that kind of thing is what I’m interested in.

Justine Bethel gives her speech at the TEDxUCSB event in March, 2018.

Justine Bethel gives her speech at the TEDxUCSB event in March, 2018.

Q.  In your TEDxUCSB talk, you shared stories about random acts of kindness from strangers who made a difference in your life when you were a homeless adolescent. You mentioned a fast food restaurant employee sneaking you meals and a local police officer willing to sit down and listen to your story. What was the process of writing your speech like for the TEDx Talk?

A. The idea I had for the speech is actually based on a book that I’ve been working on that’s just a story like the stories I told in the TED Talk. A whole book of those. These are the random people that did something that was insignificant to them but changed my life, to the point that it kept changing and kept changing and I was able to get myself together and get off the streets. So, I was thinking about that and the idea for my book. The book is called Kindness from Strangers. It’s based on random acts of compassion. I just pulled from that and picked three stories that I thought were really meaningful that I hadn’t actually written down before.

Q. You have been published many times during your time here as a UCSB student. Your work appears in online magazines, like your scientific piece in Matter Thoughts, and in printed books, such as the autobiographical piece you wrote in the book Sunshine Noir.  Has UCSB helped you find these opportunities?

A. There are so many opportunities and there are just so many options here. That’s why I knew it would be a good school. People don’t take advantage of it, but the English Department here is great. Every day they post a dozen opportunities or so for English majors.

The third time [I was published] was in an online magazine called Matter Thoughts. It was through the English department. They sent a letter to UCSB to ask for people to submit and I submitted, and they took it. That one is actually a scientific piece. It’s a story of a water bottle cap as it travels. It’s like a tragic love story of this water bottle cap going through the ecosystem.

Q. What advice would you give to other students at UCSB interested in writing and being published?

A. Another part of my [TEDx] speech that was understated, is taking opportunities. I do tell that to a lot of street kids because I do pep talks with the kids. I’ll go and actually talk to the youth and that’s one of the things I tell them. Never turn down an opportunity. If someone offers you an opportunity, take it. Because you never know if you’re going to get that again. And if you take it, it’s not going to hurt you. It might be hard, but you’ll never look back and wonder like, ‘Oh what would have happened if I had taken that opportunity?” You’ll know because you took it! And you don’t know what opportunities are going to lead off from that opportunity.

Julia Cates is a fourth-year UC Santa Barbara student, majoring in Communication