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foster care and higher education

As someone who is part of the student body at Portland Community College, and now finishing my second term, I am realizing that I have more room than before to discern my personal and public responsibilities.

Personal reliance has started to shift from simply acting upon my needs as a 14-year-old runaway to finding my place in networks of systems by articulating my needs. These are networks I must pursue personally, publicly and interdependently.

By the time I was 15, I was living in my second foster home. It was completely different from my first experience. I had willingly entered the foster care system. It was the childhood I had become accustomed to. The downfalls are heart-shredding. For the first time in our lives, I had been separated from my six younger siblings. My role as the oldest in my biological family led me into a leadership position from a young age, including being a protector of my biological mother and a helper to my biological father.

Related: From foster care to college

I rarely had the chance to go to school while living with my biological parents. In the lunchroom, I remember shame at not having a lunch, or not having enough lunch. My first experience of the education system as a foster child in a public elementary school made me look at my old life like I was looking the wrong way into a telescope. During the school day, my lack of biological parents seemed to scream through my eyes and project onto everything I glanced at.

“By the time I was 15, I was living in my second foster home.”

Now, at PCC, my personal diversity does not make me feel as if I stand out in a crowd. In fact, I find myself being overlooked.

Making the personal choice to place myself in foster care led to placing myself in a public education system once again. I couldn’t last a full year in public high school, leaving in 10th grade. That was my seventh public school in two states.

However, I did not drop out. I continue to refuse to be one of the few statistics that exist on foster children. I transferred to an alternative high school, which changed my life and enabled me to complete high school. It did not prepare me for higher education, though. The fact that I had learned to navigate my way through the American foster care system prepared me for the system that is higher education. I have been able to develop from my horror story of a foster care experience to my current experience of growth.

Related: When foster kids are moved around, schooling becomes an afterthought

I have long since forgotten the butterflies in my belly when thinking about walking into a new school and the leaky floodgates that follow “Are you okay?” The crowds of potential companions to drown out the ones forming in my head, the fog forming in the dry air of trauma. It felt like all my life I had lived in the desert, when, apparently, I deserved to live in an oasis. When I was becoming able to receive the droplets of outside education, it felt like I had never truly opened my taste buds up enough to taste and appreciate the convenient clean water.

After a meeting with a worker for a local peer support program for foster youth transitioning to college, I was led to believe that I was unable to join their program because I’d worked for and accepted another scholarship. I never received an answer, but I finally talked to the only other foster kid I know here. That student was in both programs! Whether I was not persistent enough, or whether my opportunities were not even there in the first place, I missed out on truly finding my sense of community within the sea of students.

What made a difference was navigating a public system of individuals needs as both a personal and a public responsibility. Now 18, I am personally navigating my systems of public interdependence. The coordinator at the PCC Fostering Success Center and other adults with whom I’ve bonded over the past year here on campus have supported me in areas that the Department of Human Services and/or I alone could not. I wish I’d been surrounded by diverse and grateful peers my entire life — people who can connect and empathize with others.

Those who genuinely smile at everyone do not get overlooked.

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

Rosemary Gullett is a student at Portland Community College and part of Gateway to College National Network’s PDX Bridge initiative. PDX Bridge provides Portland-area foster, juvenile justice-involved, and homeless youth with a personalized, supported on-ramp to college and postsecondary training.

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