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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Learning to Believe in Myself
Learning to Believe In Myself Got Me to College
Ja'Nelle Earle

When I was 16 and pregnant with my son, I decided I wanted to go to college. I did not want to continue my family’s cycle of being low income and struggling through life.

But I didn’t know the first thing about college. I did not know the difference between community colleges and universities, how to apply, or where to get the money. In all the group home schools I attended, I never heard a teacher even mention the words “college” or “the future” in class. We learned about being in the army, and plenty of teachers encouraged us to get GEDs, but not to aim for higher education.

Even though I worried I hadn’t gotten a good enough education and might not be smart enough for college, I told a staff member that I wanted to go and one day become a social worker or counselor.

“You would be an excellent social worker,” she said. She had a degree in social work herself and told me I could do anything I wanted. After that, we talked more about me going to college. I began to think that maybe my dream could become reality. I decided my goal would be to attend a four-year university.

A few months after I had my son, I left the group home and went to live with a relative. I returned to public school, which was a total shock. I felt miles behind the rest of the 12th graders. I felt like a failure and feared my dream of going to college might never happen.

I became really close to my homeroom teacher at the school, Ms. P., who told me, “You are really smart. You should apply to our local four-year university. I know you can get in!” She had more faith in me than I had in myself.

I thought I would be better off at a community college where I could make up all the requirements I needed to be accepted to a four-year university. So I took an assessment test for my local community college and scored average in almost everything.

I applied for scholarships, but didn’t get any and couldn’t understand why. Not getting any of the scholarships made me feel like I was right and Ms. P. was wrong: I wasn’t good enough for college.

Near the end of the year, I was supposed to fill out a yellow “senior datasheet” to be considered for scholarships given out by the school. Because I believed I would never be chosen, I didn’t bother to turn mine in.

The day that the school announced the scholarship winners, I went into Ms. P.’s classroom for 5th period to do my job as a teacher’s assistant.

“Why didn’t you turn in your senior datasheet?” Ms. P. demanded. “I nominated you for a scholarship and you were chosen, but since you didn’t turn in your datasheet, they won’t give you the scholarship!”

I was so disappointed in myself. I couldn’t believe that someone had actually nominated me. Because I thought the worst, I got the worst. I wondered if maybe I should start believing in myself as other people had believed in me. Perhaps that’s what it would take to make my dream of college become a reality.

My social worker suggested that I attend Independent Living Skills classes to get more information about college before I went that fall. I was very shy and I didn’t want to be in a group with people I didn’t know. I convinced myself that I knew everything I needed to know. If I didn’t know something, I decided I would ask my sister since she was enrolled at the two-year college I was planning to attend.

I got nervous every time I set foot on that campus. The college was so big and I felt lost in a world of people who seemed better and smarter than me. When there was an orientation for new students I didn’t attend because I was so afraid of going on campus.

I also had trouble registering because I couldn’t understand how people would leave a one-hour class at 9 a.m. and make it to the next class starting at 10 a.m., so I registered for only one class. Later I took a big step and asked someone how the class timing worked. I found out that teachers let students out from classes 10 minutes before each hour so students could be on time to their next class.

My sister told me that another way to get help was through something called the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), designed to support first-generation college students, low-income students, and students who needed remedial classes. I applied, but I didn’t get a response.

I was very disappointed because EOP had counseling and other benefits like book grants, workshops, and a special graduation ceremony. I was too shy to ask why they had not contacted me, but I told my sister about my problem. After she talked to one of the head counselors, I got a date and time for orientation and I received EOP services, which helped me.

My first day of school was so scary. I still felt I wasn’t good enough for college and I wished I could be home, spending time with my son. Then I remembered that my 18th birthday would be here in less than two months, and there would be no more foster care money. I was going to have to start supporting myself.

With that in mind, I was brave and went to my first class, English.

After working hard in the English class for one semester I earned a “B.” I was very proud.

The second semester I not only took a full load of classes, I also found a job. I went to a program that helps foster and former foster youth get jobs and my case manager helped me create a wonderful résumé. Soon I was the student worker for our county’s Independent Living Skills program, working 20 hours a week.

As time went on, college and work became creative outlets for me, which made it easier to balance work, school, and being a mother. That same semester, I learned of two scholarships for former foster youth. Like the last time, I thought I would not be chosen, but this time, I did apply. To my surprise, I was awarded both scholarships.

Getting those scholarships finally made me feel like I belonged in college. Through those scholarships, I found the financial and emotional support I needed to continue attending college.

I still sometimes felt inferior to other students, but I went ahead and applied to a local four-year university.

In March, I received a letter from the university and ripped it open. I was accepted! I kept reading the letter over and over to make sure that I was reading it correctly. I was very excited. I had thought I wasn’t good enough and that I could never get through college, but through persistence, I had finally reached one of my long-term goals.

Two months later, I got my associate’s degree. I felt good. I felt like I could achieve anything I wanted.

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