Many of my classmates and acquaintances from my childhood still have no idea about the challenges and struggles that my family and I faced on a daily basis as I grew up. Now, at the age of twenty-four, after years harboring feelings of anguish and embarrassment, I am finally able to speak about my own personal experience growing up in the welfare system, and my journey to break the cycle of poverty and to change the predisposed course for my life.
People often ask me how I was able to reroute the course of my life, and I have discovered that the answer is a combination of two things. First, my college diploma not only gave me the propensity for income that I needed to break the financial confines of poverty, but it equipped me with the confidence I needed to venture off on my own and develop ideas and dreams that were bigger that what I had known growing up. Second, I could not have begun my journey if it were not for the people who mentored me by showing me the importance of a college education and the value that a degree holds in our society. What it took for me was one stable adult who held me accountable and introduced me to possibilities for my future that I had never considered before.
My mother is a hardworking woman. She tried her very best, given the circumstances that she was in, to raise her children with values and morals. She had two infants, my sister and I, before she was twenty-two years of age. She had not obtained any college education and neither had my father. In fact, no one on either side of my family had ever even attended college.
When I was about six-years-old, my mother discovered that my father had been stealing the mortgage checks to finance his crystal meth addiction. This, along with the discovery of his adultery and the advancement of my father’s alcoholism, spurred my mother to take the challenging path of being a single mother. Thus began the crumbling of my family’s financial security.
Despite their separation, I continued to see my father on occasion. As I look back, though, I realized that I cannot recall any moments with my father when he was sober. On multiple occasions, I remember him being pulled over and arrested while drinking and driving with my sister and me in the car. In fact, my father was incarcerated at least six times during my childhood. From elementary school through Junior high school, our relationship deteriorated. On many occasions, our weekend visits would be to the county jail where we talked to him through the telephone and plexiglass. He even brought my sister and me with him during drug deals and left us in the car. My sister and I often kept quiet over these situations because we lapsed into what psychologists refer to as survival mode. But now that I am older, I am comfortable enough with myself that I have begun discussing some of the untenable situations I found myself in as a child.
During this time, my mother was working full-time to support us financially. But with only a high school diploma, her wages were barely enough to scrape by. At the same time, being the young single woman that she was, my mother was trying to build a new life and seek new relationships, which kept her out of the home a majority of the time. By the time we were in junior high, we had already moved over ten times. Our grandparents were often a source of comfort and stability for us, but that quickly changed when my grandmother passed away from cancer when I was thirteen-years-old. Around the same time my mother ended up becoming pregnant with my littlest sister. My baby sister is a major source of happiness for me and she is a blessing to our family, but, I have to admit, that along with a new baby came more financial despair and an additional member of the family. Upon the birth of my little sister, her father was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. With these conditions came many bouts of violence toward my mother and to others. After years of chaos and fear, he was finally incarcerated indefinitely due to the unfortunate effect that these disorders had on his ability to keep himself and the public from harm.
With another mouth to feed, my mother had to work even more hours than she did before. My sister and I found that the only way to survive was to find jobs to earn money for ourselves while simultaneously splitting the enormous role of “2nd parent” for our baby sister. At age 15, I worked after school as a janitor at a mobile home park, something that I was obviously ashamed of and kept absolutely secret. Throughout this time, there was never any mention of college or any mention of how to avoid the lifestyle that we were living. I struggled to appear “normal” at school. I would often avoid eating lunch because I didn’t want my peers to ask me why I was getting them for free from the school. My teeth were rotting with cavities, but we could not afford to get them fixed. On top of that, I became very ill during my sophomore year of high school and was hospitalized for over a month. The doctors were never able to diagnose my illness, but I can’t help but think it was stress-related. I was barely getting through high school because I was more concerned about my basic needs. My mother was trying her very best, but it seemed as if the harder she worked, the more we fell behind and the more it was up to me to provide for my baby sister.
Finally, things started turning around. A mentor came into my life who asked me a very important question: “Where are you going to college?” I remember being confused because I had ever only known being asked, “Are you going to college?” To which I would quickly respond with a compulsive, “NO!” This mentor taught me that the only thoughts worth having were hopeful and positive ones. I began to fathom a dream which seemed impossible—college.
My sister was a year older than I was, and she had started talking about this dream as well. “Do you think we can do it?” she asked. So, we set up to accomplish the impossible—to overcome the odds and graduate high school and go even further. I began to see it as my ticket out of the Cycle of Poverty.
At this point, I was finishing my junior year in high school and could barely maintain a 2.0 GPA. I was taking 9th grade math for the 3rd time. Although I had decided that, yes, college was somewhere I wanted to go, to me it seemed too far gone. My pessimistic outlook on life only perpetuated my propensity to write myself off before giving it a try. What my mentor provided me was a place where I could believe that miracles could happen. My mentor showed me how to apply for a FAFSA and how to get low-interest loans. I began applying for every scholarship I could and it began to motivate me to work harder in high school. I went from below a 2.0 GPA to above a 3.0 in one year. It was amazing that a little hope and motivation could actually help me improve my work.
I applied to every 4 year university in the State of Washington and when I was accepted in the Washington State University symphony orchestra, I was optimistic that my acceptance letter would quickly follow. But it didn’t. I was denied from every university in the state of Washington and was devastated once again. I believed I was a failure and nothing good would ever come for me. When I was ready to give up on myself, another mentor stepped into my life and told me about programs in other states that might accept me. I wrote a letter to several schools in the California State University System (which I had found out accepted entry testing for Math and English competency). I expressed in my letter that my GPA did not accurately reflect my level of intelligence and commitment to education. I told them why attending their university was so important to me, and the obstacles I had overcome to even get this far. A few weeks before high school graduation I received a phone call from Sacramento State University that changed my life. They decided to admit me into their university on the condition that I could score at entry level requirements on their Math and English entrance exams. And I did.
I wish I could say it was easy but the hard work only increased from that point. The summer before college I spent every weekend at Pike Place Market playing my violin on the street with a sign that read, “Help Me Get to College.” I raised enough money to move to California entirely on my own and spent my first three days (before the dorms opened) sleeping in a tent at a park near the university. The hardest part about going away for school was leaving my baby sister. She was only five when I left and because I had played such a large role in her upbringing it was heartbreaking to leave her behind. I stayed strong knowing that I had to show her that I could succeed and that when I came back I would be an example to her that we could do it.
In 2009 I graduated from California State University Sacramento with a double concentration in Intercultural/International Communication and Organizational Communication. My older sister and I were the first members of our family, on either side, to attend and graduate college.