Is College for Me?

Trauma, lack of support, and at least one learning disability made school hard for me. I made it through high school and now must choose between college and a vocational program.

by Anonymous

Up until the 11th grade, school was a struggle. My parents abused me, which made it hard to concentrate, and they never helped or encouraged me in school. Then I went into care, missed a lot of school, and fell behind.

Now I need to make a big decision: I’m 19 and only have two more years of financial support from foster care. (Though other foster care money ends at 21 in New York, education and training vouchers [ETV] can continue until your 23rd birthday.)

In October of 11th grade, I was moved into Blanca’s house, where I still live. Blanca was and is the best parent I’ve had. She told me when I got there, “You are going to do well in school because you can.” Partly because she believed in me, I went to my classes every day. That semester, I got B’s in every class.

I got those grades despite a new thing that started happening in 11th grade. When I read for more than 10 minutes, the words started to turn upside down on the page. The only way I could get that to stop was to close the book and take a break. After five minutes, I could read again, so I got through my homework by taking many breaks. It was embarrassing, though, when it happened as we were reading aloud in class. I worried that people thought I couldn’t read. The letters also flipped when I was writing on a computer for too long.

Although I was finally happy at home, I still didn’t want to be seen as “that poor kid in foster care.” So I took a job at Petland cleaning animals’ cages, five days a week for six hours a day. I made $380 every two weeks and could buy the things I wanted, including the same sneakers as other kids, and a new phone that came out that year.

I also joined Police Explorers, a program where kids ages 14 to 20 learn how to be police officers, like a junior police academy. I want to be a cop when I grow up, partly as a reaction to my biological family being gang-involved. My grandfather was the exception; he served in the Army. I look up to him, and I want to serve my community, too, by taking bad people off the street.

Joining Police Explorers is a good first step toward being a cop. But to get into the Police Academy, you need two years of college or armed services experience.

I failed all my classes the second semester of 11th grade. I’d been excited about all the hours I got at Petland, but I realized it didn’t add up to that much. Blanca encouraged me to prioritize school over my job. “You can keep making your $9 an hour without a diploma,” she said, “but you can make $22 starting out when you get your associate’s.”

To be a cop, I needed to finish high school and go to college. After that failed second semester, my guidance counselor suggested a transfer school. They allow you to earn credits faster. In May, I applied to two transfer schools and went on interviews. I realized it was the only way I would graduate the following year.

Grinding Through High School

I got into a transfer school, and during my first semester, my foster care agency tested me for ADHD. The next month, I got my diagnosis. Now I knew why it was hard for me to sit still and be quiet for more than 25 minutes and why I couldn’t focus in class as long as most students. I did not tell the psychologist about the letters flipping upside down when I read, but I think I also have an undiagnosed learning disability.

After my diagnosis of ADHD, I got an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in November 2017.

At first, I was ashamed because I had an IEP, but then I learned that it’s just a support, and lots of kids get them. I got five and a half hours to take my Regents exam (the test New Yorkers must pass to graduate) while everyone else got two hours. I was ashamed again and felt dumb that I needed more than twice as much time. I never took medication for ADHD because I heard it makes you feel weird.

However, I managed to graduate with an 87 average by grinding during the year and a half I was at the transfer school. I didn’t make any friends. Besides graduating, I also got my driver’s license and wrote a story for Represent that was published in a book. The writing program at Represent showed me how to structure my writing, and I went from a 62 on my English Regents to an 80 the second time I took it.

I started college at Bronx Community College (BCC) the following spring semester. College was not as easy as I expected it to be—a four-hour day, three days a week—even though some of my IEP adjustments carried over into college. You have to do a lot of work at home, including essays that are many pages long, not five paragraphs like in high school. The letters on my computer screen flipped more with all this writing. The flipping is worse when I write on an assigned topic than when I write about myself at Represent.

After about a month, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pass all my classes, and that learning by doing would be easier for me. I asked my BCC academic adviser Mr. Cory about trade school.

Mr. Cory said, “If that’s best for you, go for it, but you have a year to come back to BCC and keep your financial aid.” When I heard this, I was very happy. I don’t want to run from the challenge, but I felt like I couldn’t succeed in college because of all the homework and deadlines. In addition, I was afraid I couldn’t write a five-page paper on the English class’s topic, which was something about humanity.

I kept trying in my classes that semester, but I failed English 101 because I didn’t turn in the two research papers. I couldn’t finish them because as I wrote and reread the words started to flip. I got an 80 in math and a 75 in biology, but I didn’t go back for another semester. Instead, I enrolled in a 12-month trade class for building maintenance.

Learning by Doing

I love what I am learning in trade school. It’s much easier than college for me because I’m a hands-on learner. It takes me longer to learn something from a book than it does seeing it and doing it. I already know how to plaster a wall and hang a door.

I’m torn between trade school and college, but I might as well finish the one-year program. After that, I can probably find a good maintenance job that pays me enough to live and gives me benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan.

It’s a hard decision. I will ask these two questions about my job: “Do I like what I do?” and “Will I be able to survive on the pay?” Cops start at around $42,000 a year in New York City, but after five and a half years, that goes up to about $85,000. My building teacher told me that the starting salary for a building maintenance worker is between $22 and $27 an hour. That comes out to about $40,000 to $53,000 a year. A cop makes more money, but you also have to worry about killing someone or being killed.

However, it has been my dream for years to be a cop, and that requires two years of college, then six months in the police academy. I don’t want to leave that dream behind without trying again. I have the financial support of my foster care agency for two more years, so if I’m going to do college, I should do it soon. In addition, even after the letters started flipping, I was able to get an 87 in high school by taking breaks, so maybe I can do the academic work.

Besides money for college, I also have my foster mother who helps me stay on track. I might ask my agency to be tested for a learning disability, which may help me make the decision. But as my 21st birthday gets closer, having money now, not in the future, looks more and more important.

Help Youth Find Their Education and Work Paths

This writer got some adult help figuring out what he should do after high school. But he could have used more. His story offers guidelines for foster parents, workers, and teachers for helping youth navigate school.

  • If youth describe some reading difficulty like letters flipping or difficulty focusing, get them tested for a learning disability.
  • If the youth is given an IEP, they will likely feel embarrassed. Point out to them that “It’s just a support,” and that many smart people have learning difficulties. The IEP administrator is also supposed to help youth with career or college plans when they graduate high school, so you may want to advocate for that help for your youth. Find more on these “transition services” in this comprehensive guide.
  • Generally support and validate their worth and intelligence, like Blanca did for the writer. A foster kid may have never heard, “Good job” or “I believe in you.”
  • Prepare them for the increased self-discipline, time management, and reading that college requires. Encourage them to start practicing these skills before college starts.
  • The writer figured out on his own that he might be better at “learning by doing,” but you can save a child a lot of heartache if you explain that different people learn differently.
  • Encourage them to seek out academic advisors before it’s too late, as this writer did.
  • Don’t shame a youth who opts for vocational training or going straight to work. Remind them that people can and do go back to college later, but that finding work you like and are good at is its own reward.
At first, I was ashamed because I had an IEP, but then I learned that it's just a support, and lots of kids get them.
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