Adapting to Have a Better Future

With perseverance and the support of my community, I’ve surpassed the many barriers between me and my college education.

by Saphir Wenzi

Credit: ASphotowed

As an unaccompanied refugee minor, I’ve faced many challenges in pursuing my education, but the support of my foster families, agency, and friends has helped me along the way. For me, being a successful woman in the world means having a family of my own and working as a social worker or mental health counselor. I want to support other immigrants and refugees like me. I’m striving to achieve my goals because, despite the obstacles in my way, I want to ensure that my future is secure.

After finishing high school, attending college was the next step toward my aspiration. I applied to Lehigh Carbon Community College for the 2022-23 academic year, and my foster mom even helped me find a place to live in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where the college is located. However, I was unable to move because of the rules connected to my foster program requiring a background check to be completed on my roommates. This proved impossible, as it was a big house, with lots of people coming and going. Without this information, the foster program didn’t want me to move into the apartment as the only teenager.

I’m striving to achieve my goals because, despite the obstacles in my way, I want to ensure that my future is secure.

Instead, I moved to West Philadelphia in July 2022 to begin my first semester at the Community College of Philadelphia in September. Moving into adulthood was scary, but I was also excited to have more freedom and control over my life. I knew I needed to be strong and have the courage to face new challenges.

Barriers to Receiving an Education

My conviction was tested even before my first class. During registration, a school administrator incorrectly listed me as an international student. I didn’t have a state ID yet, so I supplied my foster program ID, which listed French as my second language. I think that, upon seeing this, the administrator made an incorrect presumption.

Because I was listed as an international student rather than one who is in-state, I was billed for much higher tuition, one that I could not afford. I only realized this a few days later when I tried to add a class to my course schedule with my academic counselor, who noticed the mistake. My counselor emailed me a form to correct my status, but when I filled it out, my request was denied.

The school asked me to prove current citizenship or provide a Pennsylvania state ID and bank statement with a Philadelphia address dated 12 months prior. I took a screenshot of the email and sent it to my case manager at my foster care agency, Bethany Christian Services.

It was hard for me to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing if I would be able to begin my college studies that fall. I worried that it was my fault, that this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t tried to add a course. Having already experienced many barriers to receiving an education since fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I worried that college wasn’t meant for me.

Thankfully, I received support from many people at Bethany Christian Services. When I talked to my case manager about my situation, she told me not to be afraid. The agency used money from the Chafee grant, a government program which supports youth transitioning out of foster care, to pay my rent. The grant allows them to support unaccompanied refugee minor children up to 26 years old, which meant that I would still be covered after I turned 21 in the upcoming year and had to leave the program.

But I was still confused regarding the status of my documents. Another problem was that I was financially supporting my family back home, but I could not be formally employed because I didn’t have a work authorization card.

Soon after, my case manager visited me and told me that I needed a government-issued ID to qualify for in-state tuition.

However I lacked the documentation required to apply for a Pennsylvania state ID, and the waiting period for the documents I needed meant that I could not start school on time. With so many obstacles stacked against me, I learned to braid hair so that I could at least make money on the side. 

Braiding hair helped me cover a few expenses and send some money back home to my family. I worked full-time and weekends too.

Then my work authorization card finally arrived in September and my Social Security card a couple of months later. Now that I had the required documentation, I was able to successfully apply for a state ID.

Knowing the Answer

Hoping that I could join the college in the spring, I sent the school administration a copy of my ID in November, but my application was denied because I needed to have a permanent resident card as well.

Disappointed and unable to pursue my educational goals, I slowed down and found a better-paying full-time job. My life was not as I expected, but I did my best to adapt to have a better future.

I often felt defeated. Once I holed up in my room for days, crying because I was tired of waiting. My boyfriend, Gloire, came to visit and cheered me up. “Babe, everything will be fine,” he told me.” I know that you will start school soon because,” (he referenced the T-shirt he wore, which read) “I don’t need a Google because my girlfriend knows the answer.” I laughed. We kissed and hugged each other, then rose from the bed and went to buy African food. If my boyfriend had not come that day, I would have been stuck in my room for the entire week.

I felt hopeful and determined as I thought about what I wanted my future to be.

Being with Gloire reminded me how eager I was to be successful and independent, and for us to build a life together. I felt hopeful and determined as I thought about what I wanted my future to be. I said to myself, I don’t want this kind of life where I feel stuck and unable to meet my goals.

Then, Bethany Christian Services told me they could cover my tuition with Chafee funds if I attended Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC), which was originally my first choice. But I’d have to move back to Allentown. I was afraid of moving from the big city of Philadelphia and leaving the opportunities there behind, and I didn’t know whether I was making the right decision, but I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to pursue my dreams.

When I talked to my case manager about moving to Allentown, she said, “Girl if you know what you are doing is right for you, don’t hesitate and go for it.”

So I took a leap of faith, as I have learned to do when faced with uncertainty.

Moving Back to Allentown

Moving was expensive, and I had to take money from my savings, but thankfully, Gloire was around to help me out.

As we packed up my things, I hugged him and smelled his perfume. A piney aroma filled the air as I gazed up at him. “Thanks for coming, Babe,” I said gratefully. His hand gently grazed my shoulder, and he replied with bright, cheerful eyes.

After moving into my apartment and making it feel like home with my roommate, who is also an unaccompanied refugee minor, I finally started my first semester at Lehigh in the spring of 2023.

I did not need to prove a residency to LCCC because Bethany Christian Services had registered me under its name when I applied in my senior year of high school. So, even though I didn’t have a permanent resident card yet, they accepted my unaccompanied refugee minor documents.

I felt thankful and thought back to the devastation I went through with the Community College of Philadelphia. Even though I was in a better position now, as an immigrant in the United States, it was tough to get things that many citizens take for granted.

Chasing After My Dream!

I’m happy to be in Allentown studying at LCCC and relieved that my long waiting period is over.

My classes have been diverse, with students from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Ecuador, and my home country, the Congo. As we’ve bonded over our various cultures, music, food, and traditions, they’ve become my new family.

Although we’ve had different life paths and are pursuing different careers, we’ve connected over our shared difficulty in learning to speak English and the barriers to starting school we’ve faced as migrants.

When I told them about my hardships upon entering the United States, including being moved to different foster families, they praised my courage, resilience, and positivity.

With their company and the support of my English professors, I’ve improved my writing, reading, listening, and speaking skills. But I haven’t had time to celebrate. I still need to work to survive in the United States and to send money back to my family in the Congo.

It’s hard for me to balance working part-time at a hospital and as a housekeeper with a full course load. Most days, I go directly from work to my evening classes.

I want to graduate quickly so that I can sooner financially support my family while serving people who come from circumstances like mine. I’ve decided to major in human services, which will allow me to get a better job in a hospital or community health center.

I look forward to graduating from LCCC in 2026 and walking through the doors that my degree will open for me. While I know that my life will continue to be full of challenges, I believe that my support system and determination to have a better life will guide me through the rest of the journey.

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