College may have been my most difficult, yet rewarding experience to date. After getting kicked out from the first university I attended, being in various homeless shelters across New York City, and being officially aged out of foster care, higher education was something that I never really was prepared to face.
For starters, when I exited my group home — and I am very grateful for each and everyone there — I really didn’t understand the world that I was stepping into. I was 17 years old and had been a ward of the state for about two years, leading up to my departure from their facility. Before that, I had spent 15 years in a foster home where I was eventually adopted. But I suffered a great deal of abuse and trauma. I opted myself into care, finally refusing to turn back to those conditions. I spent the bulk of my life taking care of the household daily, taking care of the children in the home, and taking care of my caretaker all while incurring physical, mental and emotional abuse as I attempted to stay on top of my studies.
With life came no freedom. I spent all of my time in the house and away from my peers, except for the time I spent with them in school. When I finally escaped those conditions, I entered the system and bounced around awhile, eventually spending my time in group homes and institutions. That wasn’t a problem for me, however, because I loved the family dynamic they brought to me. I liked the schedule, discipline and support they offered me. The staff at my group home was able to nurse me back to health and get me going down the right path. They implanted seeds in me that, to this day, still mean a lot to me. But what I didn’t realize was that the moment I left there, the ground would be taken from underneath my feet.
Sure, it was more than exciting to be living in a dorm with a bunch of new friends and peers and the new stuff that my group home family made sure that I had. But, it was also challenging for me to transition. Previously, I was just getting out of situations where I was constantly shown and taught the right way to do things. Now, I was just given this unlimited freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. Needless to say, I went wild. Before this, I never even experienced drinking or being around my peers unsupervised as I previously spent time with others around staff members. I had no real skills in conflict resolution or even conducting myself as a young adult as I always had my group home staff to assist me and guide me.
Here, I was alone and on my own, trying to figure it out. My caseworker was there, but just to pop in and out, not as that parental or mentor figure that I needed. I did well the first half of my first semester, saw my grades and everything else happening on campus, and forgot all about the reason why I was in college to begin with. College became more like something I was supposed to do, to be honest. Long story short, I was wildin’ out on campus and it just wasn’t tolerated. I ended up having to leave and found myself traveling back to my hometown to intake at a youth shelter in the middle of Manhattan.
After I went to the shelter, I bounced around a little, survived a domestic relationship, got arrested a few times and finally made it into supportive housing. In supportive housing, I just went to work. I knew that I wanted to get back into school just to say that I did it, but I didn’t have that luxury. I needed to figure out how I was going to take care of myself. I didn’t have any stipends from the state to rely on as I aged out. I refused to be coerced with money from my abusers so I started my journey in the hospitality industry. I bounced around for a while until I finally decided that the key to my financial freedom was to further my education in some way. I decided to enroll in an adult education program first at the College of New Rochelle in New York, where I was able to get my grade point average up to 3.5. This allowed me to get into Lehman College a few years later.
I started Lehman College in January 2015, and it was super exciting. I knew that I had to work so, at first, I only enrolled in school part time. But, it was messing with my financial aid so I eventually moved up to full time. Having to do everything alone while being in a not-so-stable environment was the challenge of a lifetime. I constantly faced and was challenged with so much that my insomnia and depression kicked in to the point where I eventually stopped taking care of myself. Hats and hoodies became my daily vibration because I was literally struggling to make it through. Still, with just feeling like that and not feeling pretty, I was determined to still finish school. I used a lot of on-campus resources I found by myself as well as resources from my supportive housing program. I graduated in May 2018 and ended up getting out of supportive housing and getting my own apartment. It was literally the most difficult time of my life. I was just determined to beat the odds and not become who I felt my foster family tried to make me out to be.
I made choices that ended up making my journey harder, no doubt. But, I believe there can be and should be more preparedness for the youth exiting the system when transitioning into situations where there won’t be the support and connections they’re used to. Because I was used to being in therapeutic groups, I eventually got the help that I so desperately needed for my mental health, but not everyone might be as lucky. I think focusing on unpacking and processing emotions should be another thing to look at for youth. That, alone, can make a difference in one’s mindset in overcoming adversity.