People who’ve never been in foster care may take for granted the little things when it comes to college. Most college freshmen, for example, just assume everyone has a parent or guardian to help them move into their first dorm. But many young people in the system don’t have anyone for that transition.
Luckily, I have an amazing social worker, Ms. Leconte. She understood how it could upset me to see other students with their parents on move-in day while I was all alone. So she told my agency that she and her daughter, Ariel—who also worked at my agency, as an Education Specialist—would drive me to my campus in late August of my freshman year. The three of us drove five hours from New York City to my state university up north.
I had been accepted to SUNY Plattsburgh through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP, see box at the bottom of the page for more information). So this was not my first trip through the beautiful trees and mountains of upstate New York. I had come up a month earlier for EOP’s mandatory summer program on campus. (The director of my agency and one of the supervisors drove me up that time.)
So the scenery was familiar, but on this trip, I felt the warmth of being loved and cared for. I had been close to my social worker for eight years. Her offer to take me to college on move-in day was soul-stirring, encouraging, and uplifting.
On the ride, we laughed, talked, and napped. Ms. Leconte and Ariel gave me excellent advice. Ariel said, “Learn to balance your social life and academic life. Stay focused, and don’t allow others’ words to become your reality.”
Two years later, these words still guide how I communicate with people and the decisions I make regarding my social life.
When we got to campus, everything looked beautiful. My excitement was high: I could not wait to get to my new home for the year, Hood Hall. The three of us walked into suite 520 with my suitcases.
Suddenly, a Family
I was grateful for my companions, because we walked right into a conflict. My roommate had rearranged the room without my permission. Our beds were now in an L shape, where her feet would be in my face, and that did not sit well with me.
Before tackling that, however, we all introduced ourselves. When it was Ms. Leconte’s turn, she introduced herself as my aunt. As that word landed on my ears, everything froze for a second. Then I was flooded with relief. I hadn’t known Ms. Leconte was going to do this or that I wanted her to, but I was so grateful not to tell my new roommate and suitemates that this woman was my social worker or that I was a foster child. I could be my other selves that did not involve my experience in care.
My roommate’s family had just left. My “aunt” told my roommate that she needed to change the room back to how it was. My roommate got upset and said she changed it so we could have more space. Ms. Leconte disagreed and repeated her previous order. I went and got my R.A. (Resident Assistant), and again Ms. Leconte was my aunt. The R.A. listened to both sides and said that she understood where my roommate was coming from, but she should have asked for my permission. So she moved the beds back to their previous positions (parallel to each other) with the help of Ariel.
The three of us unpacked my belongings and then went to Walmart and HomeGoods to get more decorations and essentials. I was with my “family,” just like the other students in Walmart. I basked in that togetherness as much as I could because I knew it was temporary.
I thought about how Ms. Leconte and Ariel had set this foundation for me—I was a girl with family—that no one had the power to dismantle except me. That foundation gave me the privilege to be a “normal” college student.
After they left, I went back to my suite. My roommate was still upset and we coexisted in awkward silence until the third day when I said, “Good morning.” She responded as if she were doing me a favor.
They Didn’t See Me
But I kept saying “Good morning” and then “How was class?”; “What’s your major?” to “What are you doing after lunch?” to “Want to get some food with me?” With each question, we got closer to calling each other friends.
I had money from ACS and EOP and other awards granted to me because I was in care. I sometimes asked my suitemates to accompany me to a restaurant or to Walmart. When I bought supplies or food, they would say things like “Not everyone is as financially privileged as you,” or “Oh, you went shopping again?” or even, “Marie, you are spoiled.” Little did they know, I did not have parents to send me money when I asked like they did. My parents had never stepped foot in America, and I hadn’t seen them in years.
Partly because of the “aunt” lie, my suitemates saw a spoiled girl from a rich family, not a foster child. I began to feel like I was living a double life.
Luckily, I had made some friends during my two months at EOP over the summer, and their rooms became my haven. I never had to pretend with them, maybe because we shared some of the same struggles and the same socio-economic backgrounds. They never made me feel uncomfortable. The EOP students are still my friends because we never assume things about each other. We asked about what we did not know and appreciated each other for who we were.
So I got through the semester socializing with my EOP friends, tolerating my suitemates, but mostly studying. My EOP counselors also played that “aunt” role. They reminded me why it was important to keep my grade point average (GPA) up and made sure I had the resources to do so: academic coaching, personal tutors, advising, and love.
Even Doubting My Grades
As finals approached, I was determined to finish the semester strong. During finals week, I spent hours a day at the library, studying and writing essays. All I did in my suite was shower, brush my teeth, and take naps.
I wanted to prove to Ms. Leconte, along with my agency and EOP, that their work and investment in my academic success were not in vain. I finished that semester with a 3.8 GPA, making my “aunts” proud.
But some of my suitemates didn’t believe I earned those grades. One suitemate said, “Marie, how did you get those grades?” Another said of my 3.8, “Oh, it must be because you are in EOP.” I already had insecurities relating to my academics and hearing skepticism from my four suitemates, people who knew all the hours I spent studying, damaged my self-confidence.
It hurt that my suitemates thought EOP counselors “gave” me my grades. Yet I still preferred that people doubt my intelligence than know I was in care.
Their finding out I was in care would open a whole new can of stereotypes, questions, and assumptions that I did not have enough courage and strength to deal with. I was still trying to process my existence as a youth in care. I did not give people room to ask me questions. I never added new lies to the pile; I just kept the one my social worker had told and let people assume whatever I didn’t tell or show.
After my first year, I decided that living on campus was not for me. I needed to regain control over my sense of self. There were too many pairs of eyes and ears on my every phone call and tearful episode. I needed privacy.
I did not want any roommates, not even my EOP friends. I needed my own spaces to create healthy coping mechanisms that worked for me, whether alone or with people. I also wanted to have all my belongings with me.
So, the summer after freshman year, Ms. Leconte drove me to my old foster home to retrieve everything I had left there. I now live off-campus in my own apartment. (This is actually affordable in an upstate town like Plattsburgh.)
Maya Angelou once said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Unlike living in a dorm room or a foster home, here I don’t have to explain to anyone why I function the way I do. In my home, I can remove the façade and live my true existence. For example, I’ve hung on the walls the different awards I’ve received from foster care programs. This place is my sanctuary.
All the transitions I’ve gone through in my 20 years—from Haiti to the U.S., from foster homes to a college dorm to my apartment—have taught me that nothing and nobody is permanent. I’ve known nothing more empowering than to choose and live in my own home.
EOP offers financial, academic, and other help to students of State University of New York colleges who need it. Foster youth automatically qualify. For more info, visit the EOP webpage.