The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Expected to Fail
But I turned things around in college
Orlando Hawkins

For me, high school was a struggle, a constant psychological battle. I was haunted by past experiences in the foster care system—abuse, my difficulty maintaining positive relationships, and most importantly, not being able to be myself.

Living in a group home during high school, I felt I could never realize my full potential. I was usually stuck inside all day watching television, reading, or playing video games. I was seldom allowed to do other things, so my social skills were not that good.

I felt excluded on the basketball team. My teammates traveled for games and tournaments as far away as Las Vegas and Florida, but my group home rules didn’t allow those overnight trips. I missed opportunities to learn about myself, to connect with other people, and to discover things that I’m good at.

Because I had to come directly home after school I didn’t get the tutoring that I needed either. None of the group home staff helped us with our homework. I felt like I was always behind in my studies.

I wondered why some people worked so hard in high school. I just couldn’t see the purpose. I’d see people trying hard and getting nervous in speeches for student government elections. I thought it was lame. Some would go out of their way to participate in clubs, organize events, and do volunteer work.

I didn’t realize how important these activities—and the things you learn while doing them—were to your college applications. No one explained to me that colleges looked for well-rounded people, and that these things open your mind to new ideas.

I resented all the ordinary high school students around me because they had everything that I wanted. My world was full of hatred and terror while everyone else’s seemed to be full of joy and pleasure.

Hard to Break Old Habits

I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know exactly why or what I wanted to do as a career. I ended up attending a large community college. I came with the same apathy that I had in high school.

My first semester, I knew I wanted to be successful, but I felt insecure. I was afraid of ending up like the rest of my family; there weren’t a lot of models for success. I decided that I had to do great in college if I didn’t want to be like them.

The hardest part of starting college was realizing that I had to do everything myself. From picking classes to making appointments with my academic adviser, no one was going to hold my hand. During the fall semester, the only college office I visited was the financial aid building, because I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my classes and books.

Since I was not used to studying, I often found myself on Facebook or hanging out with people I knew from high school instead of doing my work. These old high school habits were hard to break. But in my fifth week of college, that mind-set changed.

Black Men Can Achieve

I was sitting in my sociology class, and my professor was lecturing us about student success in community college. Suddenly, he said something that caught my attention. In his 15 years at the college, he said, he’d only seen one African-American male graduate and transfer to a four-year university. I was the only African-American in the class, and he looked right at me as he spoke.

Strangely, I didn’t feel angry, because I realized that the professor was telling the truth. I just felt embarrassed about being put, yet again, in a category of people who have a stigma attached to them. Because I was in foster care, some people thought it was more likely that I’d end up homeless than in college. Yet here I was, sitting in this classroom.

Still, I couldn’t deny the fact that the African-American graduation rate at my school was dismally low. I had something to prove. I felt challenged.

As the professor continued, I suddenly had a feeling of enlightenment that was telling me to just keep moving forward and prove the stereotype wrong. I’d never felt this kind of energy before. After the class, I went up to the professor and told him, “Thanks, now I know what I need to do.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied. I had the sense, though, that he didn’t understand why I was thanking him.

I left the classroom and headed to the library. Those words—only one African-American male graduated in 15 years—rang in my head like a bell. It sounded like the bell that lets you know it’s time to go to class, but this time it also said, “Hey, Mr. Hawkins, it’s time for great things to happen for you, so get a move on.”

Resisting Facebook

image by YC-Art Dept

As I entered the library, I spotted an open computer and automatically started walking toward it. Then I hesitated. Would I go on Facebook, or would I actually be true to myself and start taking my studies seriously? I decided to give in to old habits and jump on the computer.

What happened next is something I’ll never forget. I tried multiple times to log on and I couldn’t get through. I sat there, perplexed but also suddenly observant in a way I hadn’t been before. I looked around at everyone else who was on the computer for reasons other than college work and I had a revelation. If I didn’t focus on my goals, I would be unsuccessful. So I walked away.

I walked further into the library and each step I took felt like an accomplishment. I was making the decision not to be distracted by pop culture media. I found an empty table, took out my sociology book, and started reading about different cultures.

I caught on to the material quickly and felt good about myself because I was learning something new, and I was actually interested in it. I had the distinct feeling that in time, something great would happen to me.

A few weeks after my revelation, my sociology professor got into an accident. He fell off a ladder and broke some ribs, both his wrists, and his nose. I’d been bombarded with homework because he went at a fast pace so although I felt sorry for him, his absence allowed me to study more and catch up. I’d been worried about having to drop the class. That was a confidence booster, and I learned a lot.

Studying Made Me Smarter

Our class eventually got a substitute professor to replace our old one. This professor was much easier to understand and more fun. I could keep up with her lessons and she provided excellent examples. She taught so well that I thought about majoring in sociology.

She made me look at society from a new perspective, and I’ve come to realize that people’s differences are OK. My history in foster care made me different, but I wanted to live in the present now. Once I started thinking that way, things got easier. You can learn from them.

I also realized that it is better to be a critical thinker than someone who is book-smart. I began to observe other students and realized that they knew more than I did, not only because they studied the material but because they took their studies outside of the classroom by reading for fun and having intellectual conversations. I decided to develop those habits.

I tried to surround myself with positive, intellectual people.

I got back into reading for myself and realized that I was able to keep up in conversation with adults outside of school at places like jazz festivals and restaurants. Most importantly, I was able to connect with them. I could now have discussions with my professors about academic subjects and I felt more like a grown-up. As I learned more about the world, a lot of things started to make sense to me that hadn’t before. For the first time in my life, people were actually calling me smart.

Knowledge Set Me Free

As I began to study more and more, my grades began to improve, not just because I studied out of the book but because I was interacting with other people on campus. By my spring semester, I was no longer timid. For the first time in my life I could say I was happy and confident. My world was in the palm of my hand and I was rotating it.

Besides my improved confidence and connections to other students, knowing where my resources were helped a lot. It started when I met a kind-hearted scholarship coordinator the first week of the spring semester. She told me about scholarships for students in foster care and encouraged me to get more involved on campus. She said students who are more involved have higher success rates than students who are not.

It just so happened that my campus was having Club Week. I ended up co-founding our campus philosophy club and another called “Don’t Tread On Me,” which raises awareness about human trafficking.

I also attended a couple of school events and met with important people like the college vice-president and an academic counselor. Now I know at least one person from the financial aid office, the career and transfer centers, the vice president’s office, the counseling center, the Educational Opportunity Program—the list goes on. I discovered that the resources are there; all you have to do is use them to your advantage.

Most importantly, I learned that college is not only about grades; the main thing is to obtain knowledge. Too often, the emphasis today is on making money—not on the learning experience. But the chance to gain knowledge is what turned things around for me, not the promise of a career that would make me rich. I now find it fun to learn new things. For example, I realized that I was interested in debate after taking a political science class when the presidential campaign was going on.

I ended my spring semester with a 3.9 GPA, and I made the President’s List. I now have my sights set on obtaining my bachelor’s degree and eventually attending a top law school. I might become an attorney for foster youth or perhaps a defense attorney. Eventually I want to go into politics and become a senator or a legislator to reform the system for the benefit of the people. None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t started making connections with people and approaching college with an open mind.

Orlando graduated from the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles, with a B.A. in Philosophy and plans to attend graduate school.

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