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

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In My Own Hands
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. I felt held back many times, which caused me to think negatively about myself.

No one ever told me how vital school is. I would sometimes observe my classmates, and wonder 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.

I realized that I would never understand the world of an ordinary high school student. My world was full of hatred and terror while everyone else’s seemed to be full of joy and pleasure. I resented them because they had everything that I wanted, such as living a decent life and being intellectual.

I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know exactly why I wanted to go, or what I wanted to do as a career. I think that was because I didn’t have someone I could turn to when I needed help. I ended up attending a large community college in California. I came to college with the same apathy that I had in high school.

My lack of preparation almost led me to a disastrous first semester. I thought I was fooling myself in trying to become successful. But my biggest fear was ending up like the rest of my family. There weren’t a lot of models for success in my family, and I decided that I had to do great in college if I didn’t want to end up like them.

The hardest part of starting college was realizing that I had to do everything myself. From picking classes to making appointments to see an academic adviser, I came to realize that no one was going to hold my hand. During the fall semester, the only college office I visited (I knew it by heart) 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 MySpace 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 mindset changed.

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 felt like I had something to prove. I felt challenged.

As the professor continued, I suddenly had a newfound energy, a feeling of enlightenment that was telling me to just keep moving forward and prove the stereotype wrong. I’d never felt this 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. The only thing that was going through my mind was the professor’s words: He’d seen only one African-American male graduate in 15 years. In my head, those words were ringing a bell, a bell like the one that lets you know, “Hey it’s time to go to class,” but this time it was saying, “Hey, Mr. Hawkins, it’s time for great things to happen for you, so get a move on.”

As I entered the library, I spotted an open computer and automatically started walking toward it. Then I hesitated. Would I get on and check MySpace, or would I actually be true to myself and start picking up the slack by starting to take 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 stood 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. I realized that if I did not stay true to myself by sticking to my goals, I would end up like the rest of these people and remain unsuccessful. So I walked away.

image by Erika Faye Burke

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

I caught on to the material pretty quick and felt good about myself because I was learning something new, and I was actually interested in it. As I sat there, I had the distinct feeling that, in time, something great was going to happen to me.

A few weeks after my revelation, my sociology professor got into an accident. He feel off a ladder and broke some ribs, both his wrists, and his nose. Although I felt sorry for him, his absence allowed me to study more and catch up. I’d been bombarded with homework because he went at a very fast pace. I’d been worried about having to drop the class, but his absences allowed me to catch up my studies and do better on the exam. That was a confidence booster, and I learned so much more than I would have.

Our class eventually got a substitute professor to replace our old one. This professor was much easier to understand and very fun. She was the perfect professor to correlate with my newfound motivation. I could actually 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 different perspective, and I’ve come to realize that everyone is different, myself included. I remember reading a novel by Virginia Woolf called To The Lighthouse. In this book, Woolf allows the readers to enter the mind of her characters, revealing who they are, and, most importantly, their differences. The novel spoke to me and reflected how I viewed life. Everyone puts on a mask, but who someone is, not who he portrays himself to be, is the most important aspect of a person. I realized differences are normal and OK because you can learn from them.

Seeing the world from a philosophical perspective made me look at things differently. I realized that it is better to be a critical thinker than someone who is just book smart. I began to observe other students and realized that they knew more about things than I did, not only because they studied the material but because they took their studies outside of the classroom. I decided to develop that same habit.

I decided I had to get over my shyness and start surrounding myself with positive, intellectual people. I realized that my life was in the balance. I had to learn to live in the present, no matter what had happened in my past. Once I started thinking that way, things got easier.

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 my professors. I could now have discussions with my professors about academic stuff and I felt more like a grown-up.

I discovered that I was learning more about the world and 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 the smart person.

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. My spring semester, I was no longer timid and I felt like I was going to become a great individual. My confidence was at its peak. For the first time in my life I could actually say I was happy. My world was in the palm of my hand and I was rotating it.

Besides my improved confidence and connections to other students, what really helped things go more smoothly was knowing where my resources were. It started when I met a kind-hearted scholarship coordinator the first week of spring semester. She told me about scholarships especially 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, so I joined multiple clubs. 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 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 two deans of counseling, the Educational Opportunity Program—the list goes on. I discovered that the resources are there; all you have to do is go out there and 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.

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