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At recent high school graduations across the nation, the seas of smiling faces and matching caps and gowns mask the complexity of individuals’ lived experiences leading up to these moments.

For me and other young people in my situation, it’s a different story. Given that I grew up in the foster-care system, high school graduation was far from guaranteed.

When I entered foster care for the second time in my life at age 14, I was attending my second high school. I’d been living with a foster family for two years, but my home life was unstable.

Related: From foster care to college

Here’s what a lot of people don’t understand: To live in foster care is to live in a state of inconsistency. Due to a lack of resources, there simply aren’t enough quality foster homes, and rising housing costs make it even harder for foster families to find the space they need. This especially affects kids in urban areas. As a result, many more children end up in institutions, which are often rife with abuse and poor conditions.

Some kids go to school in the morning not knowing where they’ll sleep that evening, making it hard to focus on their studies. Basic survival becomes the top priority.

Even those who withstand these challenges and get accepted to college are likely to deal for the rest of their lives with the repercussions and years of trauma that are so often part of the foster experience.

Throughout my high school career, I struggled with these challenges, too. But I knew that hunkering down and focusing on my education would give me the opportunity to change my life for the better.

Related: Institutions for foster kids aren’t doing enough to educate them

In Virginia, where I grew up, you “age out” of the system at 18. Although I did receive some support from the state until age 21, at that point I was on my own. Arriving at college crystallized the advantages of stability.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to worry about things that were a perpetual distraction from academics, things that no child should be preoccupied with. I had a meal plan, I had housing; I was taking full advantage of the resources available to support my journey out of the foster-care system.

So many foster kids age out of the system unprepared for life on their own. How do we set them up to improve their chances of getting a college education and living up to their full potential?

This was eye-opening. From then on, I knew I had to figure out a way to give back and have a positive effect on other foster kids. When I graduated, I did some research and learned that only 2.5 percent of children aging out of foster care go on to earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 26.

I wanted to change that — and was inspired to do what it took to become a social worker. After earning my bachelor’s degree from George Mason University, I went on to earn a master’s degree. I wanted not only to make a difference in the lives of young people, but also to have the opportunity to think about big-picture solutions.

So many foster kids age out of the system unprepared for life on their own. How do we set them up to improve their chances of getting a college education and living up to their full potential?

In my dream job as a social worker, I see the difficulties and challenges that children face and how these affect academic success. I rely on my own lived experience as a guide, and always encourage students to make academics their top priority.

I work to connect them to mentors and to have different experiences so they can find a way to break the cycle. Sometimes, a young person is just one connection, or one resource, away from a life-changing opportunity.

I recall my seventh-grade teacher, who really invested in me. She was a listening ear when I needed her, a support system for the times when I didn’t believe in myself — and now I try to pay it forward. Just recently, a student was in the throes of grief after experiencing the loss of her mother and significant other. On top of those traumas, she’d been worrying about where she was going to sleep at night. She called me on her lunch break frustrated and upset, and I told her to stay focused on getting her education — because once you have that, no one can take it from you.

Related: The opioid crisis took their parents. Now foster kids left behind are being failed again.

Most youth want nothing to do with the foster-care system once they age out because of their extremely negative experiences and trauma. But in addition to helping individual young people in our communities, we can work to change systems.

We can advocate for increased funding for child welfare systems across the country.

We can do more to build robust support systems for young people. We can help families deal with incarceration and addiction. We can make it easier for young people to remain in their homes with their biological families and, for those who can’t, we can help them find appropriate placements so they can thrive. And we can work to hold states and systems accountable when they fail our young people.

Foster care will always be a part of who I am. When I compete in beauty pageants, I talk about foster care to raise awareness and make a difference. I am fortunate to have fought my way to an education and career that allow me to give back.

No matter where I was or what I was going through, I was determined to make it through. Let’s make outcomes like mine the norm, not the exception.

This story about foster care and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Cordelia Cranshaw is the 2019 Miss District of Columbia USA.

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