Lockdown. Isolation. Social distancing. I was familiar with these terms before COVID-19 made them famous, and with as much as I have accomplished to escape the meaning of these terms, I find myself re-familiarizing myself with them yet again.
I went into the foster care system at the age of 17 when my parents, who immigrated from the Middle East, were found negligent of their children. My last memories with my family were of my mother grooming me to be the perfect housewife, just as she had been, and my father telling me that he would like to see me go to college if my arranged husband chose to send me there. I was trapped in a cultural tapestry with no familiar patterns and hope was fading.
Years passed, and life moved forward in a new direction. While I was torn up about entering an entirely new world, culture and future, I was also apprehensively excited. This was the future that I had always wanted. A future that had choice, freedom and adventure in it. I saw the silver lining in a horrible situation, much like I am forced to now with the pandemic heightening. I saw choices that I didn’t have before, and at the tender age of 17, I took the reins and steered them into a future that I had never imagined I’d even come close to attaining – a life I could truly call mine and be proud of.
When I entered the system, my goal was to focus on using my foster care experience as a means to play catch-up on all of the social skills I never acquired in my sheltered upbringing. I sought the experiences of my peers to expedite these intentionally learned teachings and by the time I aged out of the foster care system, I was on track. I had applied to a junior college, set up a bank account, learned all there was to know about becoming successfully independent, and was working on attaining my driver’s license. Life was looking up for me and I was ready to continue formulating my goals and achieving them one step at a time.
By the age of 22, I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University, lived successfully on my own for four years, and built a successful resume through various jobs.
Currently, I am a state program specialist for foster youth in which I’m able to lend my experiences and give a voice to all the youth currently or formerly in foster care who cannot partake in the policy-making that shapes the future of the child welfare system. While I love my job, I have always wanted to pursue a medical career, but have been too scared to do so.
After I obtained my bachelor’s degree and got my job, I went straight to researching what my next move would be. After careful deliberation and pouring through career possibilities, I narrowed my findings to a Masters in Public Health (MPH) degree track and began researching concentrations I could pursue. This pursuit combined investigation, data research and advocacy all in one career and as soon as I learned about it, my eyes were locked on my next goal. However, I was working on a tight schedule as I was running very close to the deadline to submit my application to the school I wanted to attend. Immediately, I began organizing my schedule and arranging a plan to go back to school full-time for my chosen degree path. I was challenged by the constraints of time and my full-time work schedule. Because of these two things, I had about a month to prepare my application, three letters of recommendation, my letter of intent, submitting all of my transcripts, and taking and submitting a GRE exam.
Whereas the pressure was mounted, I worked out a schedule to try to accomplish this in the 30 days that I had. The odds were against me, but I had full intentions of giving it my all and submitting a complete application in time. However, as I was casually scrolling through my media channels, there seemed to be a theme of something called the coronavirus going around. I didn’t think much of it, but I was also a bit leery. I had been prepping for two weeks (with just two weeks left until the deadline) and all I had left was to take the GRE test for the application.
As the days dragged on, the novel COVID-19 virus had spread to the states, and whereas I was concerned, nothing had been affected in my state yet. At this point, the virus was both depressing with its looming presence over our future, and in a sense, fruitful — as a way for me to experience a prospective historic epidemic that would no doubt be plaguing me if I had already been an epidemiologist. Soon enough, city- and state-wide closures and stay-at-home orders included the closures of the testing centers. I was unable to take my test now and therefore, would have to delay applying for my MPH because the school had moved all current classes online but made no exception for their prospective students pertaining to application deadlines. I’ve had to postpone my application and move it until next spring because of the COVID-19.
With the pandemic growing worse by the day, I also found myself struggling with the fact that funds I had saved up to be able to go to school more and work less are being depleted quickly due to the cut work hours and loss of my second income — I worked in the hospitality business for extra income. With rent around the corner, bills mounting up, and the plans I’d made for my future are falling apart. I can only hope the situation gets better soon, because this quarantine has triggered memories of isolation and an eerie feeling of uncertainty that I hadn’t felt since before I entered the system.
After aging out of care five years ago, Nileh Irsan has earned associates and bachelor’s degrees from Texas A&M University. She was in numerous leadership and team roles while in college and found a passion in advocating through this. Outside of college, Irsan was a 2019 delegate for the National Foster Youth Institute Shadow Day program and shadowed/observed congressional members in their roles as it regards to their work. In her current position, Irsan is a program specialist with Child Protective Services agency assisting youth in their needs and motivating them to overcome their circumstances. She is planning to apply to a public health graduate program after the coronavirus subsides to resume her schooling. Irsan loves giving back to the community, advocating for the underprivileged populations, and helping educate those who are willing to listen. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, philosophical literature, fostering animals and spending time with her siblings.