I knew there was something different about our family.
When I’d spend the day with friends, I wasn’t allowed to tell them where I lived. If they offered to drive me home, I was supposed to ask that I be dropped off at the grocery store down the street from the shelter.
The showers at the shelter weren’t clean enough to use, so my brother and I just didn’t use them, until a teacher mentioned to our mom how smelly we were.
No one would have bet that as a homeless child who was orphaned as a high school senior, I’d wind up thriving at New York University on a full scholarship. Here’s how it happened.
My first stint of homelessness came in 2009, while I was in elementary school in Nebraska. My mom, my brother and I moved into the Lincoln Connection Homeless Shelter at the start of my fifth-grade year. I was 10 years old.
What was supposed to be “just a weekend” turned into eight months. I remember being uncomfortable and definitely confused.
After I finished elementary school, I moved to Colorado to be with my father. I fell in love with Colorado and my community. I made friends, I had my own shower, and I had a place that felt permanent.
Since leaving the homeless shelter, I felt I had something to prove. I made a promise to myself: I would be more than a statistic.
I was told, among other things, that I would definitely not be able to attend a top college and that I needed to transfer to another, more competitive high school.
Whether by others discounting my school and community or by others discounting me personally, I was told my entire life to aim a little bit lower. I needed to show that we are all capable of more. Importantly, I needed to prove that my community was also not a statistic.
Nothing felt more symbolic of “making it” than New York City. They say, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Underscoring this, I was the only gay student at my small school of 220. I felt isolated, and I thought New York was a place that wouldn’t judge me for that. New York University became an adopted symbol for me — a type of North Star.
While I was in high school, my father’s diabetes worsened, and he was unable to work due to this. We could not afford health insurance; medical bills piled up.
My father’s health kept getting worse. Eventually, he lost his eyesight. He died suddenly a few weeks before Christmas during my senior year of high school. I was 18 and, once again, I had nowhere to go.
Had I been 17 when my father died, social services would have taken care of my immediate needs, but at 18, even though I was still in high school, I was considered an adult, and there was nothing they were able to do at the time.
When I was staring at the very real possibility of losing the dreams I’d fought six years to achieve, I remembered what my father had said all those years: “You’ve just got to keep fighting.” I made three conscious decisions: to put school first, to stay positive and, most importantly, to stay focused on my goal. It’s what my father would have wanted.
In April 2017, I learned I had been accepted to NYU with a more-than-generous financial aid package and several scholarships. Together, these awards made it possible for me to attend my dream school. My father never got to see me open my acceptance letter. He never got to watch me triumph. After all of the struggle, I think he would be proud to know.
Not everyone who experiences homelessness has the support I got — from my father, my teachers and the wider community. All children, but especially homeless children, deserve equal access to resources to have their fair shots at education and to find paths to the futures they dream of. If we were to give all students such opportunities, they would meet them with the perseverance and determination necessary to break the cycle of poverty.
Now that I’m in my second year at NYU, I can look back and see just how extraordinary my situation was. College has provided me the stable environment I didn’t always have as a child. My childhood was way harder than it should have been, and I see how lucky I was to have people who believed in me, who took it upon themselves to help me along.
The scholarships I earned are making the education of my dreams affordable. I can’t say that I believe life will ever be easy — it isn’t, and it won’t be — but I know to choose resilience at every turn and stay focused on the future.
Gavin Arneson is one of New York University’s inaugural Rory Meyers Scholars, a Coca-Cola Scholar, and the 2017 national winner of the National Honor Society Scholarship.