Breaking The Cycle: College Graduates Who Beat The Odds
Poverty, childhood neglect, pregnancy and mental illness all make it harder to graduate from college
May 30, 2010
Getting into and graduating from college is never easy, but there are factors that make it even harder: Growing up in poverty. Suffering neglect and abuse as a child. Having a child at an early age. Suffering mental illness. Today we look at four Hartford area students who succeeded against these great odds.
When Khaliyl Lane was a little boy, he liked to ride his bike down the road to visit his good friend, Mike Allison. "I'd take a peek at what a real family is supposed to look like," Lane said. "I was always envious of the fact that they had so much love for one another."
Though he was only age 6 or 7, Lane knew his life wasn't normal. His mother didn't pay much attention to him or his younger brother. He didn't know the word neglect, but he knew his mother acted differently from other mothers.
She didn't seem to care if he did his homework, and when he got older, she didn't keep track of him the way other mothers did.
By freshman year in high school, he was flunking some courses. Later that year, in May, his mother decided she couldn't care for her children anymore and kicked Lane, then 14, and his younger brother out of their home in Marlborough.
That was when Allison's mother, Barbara, asked if Lane wanted to live with them, at least to finish out freshman year. Lane jumped at the opportunity, although he knew life would be very different at the Allisons. He was used to doing pretty much whatever he wanted after school, and sometimes he skipping school. "That wasn't flying with Barbara," said Lane, who is now 22.
Allison ran her house on a strict schedule: Mike and his younger brother, Ryan, and Khaliyl would all play sports after school every day; then, home for dinner and homework.
Barbara Allison remembers asking Lane after dinner in those first weeks together, "Do you have homework?"
"Oh my God, I haven't been asked that question since I was in second grade," she remembers him responding.
"Deep down, I knew it was what I really needed," Lane said of the structure in the Allisons' home. "I knew I needed a basis to turn my life around in a sense before it got out of hand. I always believed it was never too late to start. … You might have had a rough time growing up, but .things can always change in your favor."
The spring and summer worked out so well that Lane simply stayed on. Barbara Allison, realizing she'd need help with health insurance and other expenses, applied to become a foster parent for Lane. In his new home, Lane's performance at school greatly improved. He went to summer school, got extra help.
He hadn't thought much about college before. If anything, he thought he might go to a technical school, but now Allison was talking to him about college. "She kind of saw what was in me that I didn't even see was in me myself," he said.
He also excelled on the football field, where his coach was talking to him about playing in college. Still, Lane said, when he got his acceptance letter to the University of Connecticut, "I was really sincerely shocked. It was like a dream come true."
Allison helped him find the federal and state grants he needed to attend.
In college, he found that the adversity he had suffered as a child actually served him well in some ways. "With a lot of kids who kind of were silver-spooned a bit, they don't really know how to deal with adversity. They don't do well on a test. … They want to give up and cry to their mom. I never really had that opportunity and I felt like you got to deal with your problems on your own and keep fighting."
Lane was a walk-on player the football team in his freshman year at UConn and played with the team through his junior season, while managing to do well as a communications major and sociology minor. He has a job that he'll start in a few weeks with Wells Fargo bank.
"I always knew deep down that I could do it, but I needed a push and once I got that push," Lane said. "That's kind of why I took off."
When Denise Poventud got into Trinity College with a nearly full scholarship, she felt it would be a ticket out of the kind of life her mother had.
Born to a 17-year-old mother who dropped out of high school, Poventud, a graduate of Weaver High School, was determined "not to be a product of my circumstances. … To stop the cycle."
Her mother, Mayda Rodriguez, had run away from home and spent time homeless, sleeping in hallways when Poventud was a newborn. Rodriguez shared her daughter's ambition. "She was not going to go down my route," Rodriguez said. "She was going to do better."
Both mother and daughter felt that getting a college education was crucial. But at the end of a successful freshman year in 2006, Poventud had news that threatened to jeopardize the dream: She was pregnant.
"I freaked out in the beginning," said Poventud, and her mother, understanding the challenges of parenthood, feared that Denise might get off track.
But Poventud was not be deterred. She called Trinity and asked if there were any rules against pregnant students living in the dorms. She was told there weren't, so Poventud showed up midway through her pregnancy in September to meet her new roommates — who were surprised, but supportive.
Though it was physically exhausting — "It was kind of hard waddling across campus with my books" — Poventud got through the semester, and the birth of her daughter, and Sariah, was well-timed: a few weeks after finals, on Dec. 29.
Such persistence and focus were not new traits for Poventud. In middle school, she had been an honors student, but at Weaver, she was placed in lower classes where the work was much too easy. "I had to fight with the administration saying I'm in the wrong class," Poventud said.
The situation continued into sophomore year. Finally, in her junior year, she saw to it that she was put in Advanced Placement courses, where she was challenged.
When she started considering colleges, Poventud received little guidance. She applied to four private colleges and got accepted to two, but didn't get enough financial aid to attend either. Having to postpone her hopes of going off to a four-year college, she got a job at the J.C. Penney warehouse and began taking courses at Capital Community College in Hartford.
After two years of saving money and taking classes at Capital, she remembers calling "an admission person at Trinity and I was like: 'Hey I'm a student from Hartford and I'm trying to get into your school. I'd like some advice. When can I come have an appointment with you?' And he was like, 'OK.' "
Poventud, who is now 25, said she still talks to that admissions counselor. The college was helpful, as well: She took a semester off and when she returned, she said, Trinity gave her a scholarship to cover part of the cost of day care.
Now living at home, Poventud studied while the baby slept. When the commute became too cumbersome — toting a baby and books on the bus — Poventud's mother decided to quit her job and stay home and take care of Sariah. "I really had to help her out if I wanted to see her succeed," Rodriguez said.
While it took her a little longer to graduate than some students, she finished earning her English degree in December and marched as a graduate this month. She's now working as a substitute teacher and in an after-school program, and hopes to return to school to get a master's degree.
Having a baby might have derailed some students, but if anything, Poventud said, it provided more motivation. "It's not just for me. It's also for her and for her children. I want to be the grandma, the great, great grandma who did it and my grandchildren will say … Yeah, remember Grandma Denise? She went to school and she did it."
Quirk Middle School was probably the nadir of Neftali Torres' academic experience. After having been a good student in elementary school, Torres found no incentive in middle school.
"The teachers were unmotivated, the students were even worse," Torres said. He remembers a teacher telling him he wouldn't amount to anything, that he'd grow up to be a drug dealer.
He was getting C's and D's and he recalls fearing that if he did any better, he'd be bullied because that's what happened to good students. The last thing he thought about was going to college.
Torres said he hears Quirk is better now, but back then, he said, "I feel Quirk changed people for the worse and that you couldn't really recover from that."
His brother and some of his friends dropped out of school soon after getting to high school. "By the time they got to ninth grade, they were way behind, they didn't feel like doing work."
But that didn't happen to Torres. He's not exactly sure why he was different, but when he got to Hartford Public High School, he saw a chance for a fresh start.
He started doing his homework, going to tutoring sessions, doing anything that would help him get better grades. Slowly the grades started to climb. His mother also helped.
"She made sure I got my work done, made sure I wasn't hanging around with the wrong people, as much as I didn't like that," he said. The family lived on Park Street and she insisted that the children not go outside when she wasn't home.
"She put a lot of effort into pushing me to do things," said Torres. "She was always there on my back."
Torres thinks part of his motivation to succeed came from wanting to help his mother; his father died of an asthma attack when Torres was only 2 years old.
And there was a teacher at Hartford Public who told his students about the "bubble." Torres, now 22, recalls him saying, "You make a bubble for yourself. Keep everything you don't like out. If you see a fight, keep moving. Leave all the negative influences out."
The image helped Torres stay focused.
By the time he finished high school, he was a top student and his teachers encouraged him to consider engineering. Torres got into the University of Hartford and won a Hartford Scholars grant that covered about half his expenses. For the rest, he scrambled, applying for every scholarship he could find, eventually amassing about a dozen.
At graduation this spring, Torres was one of two students to sit on stage; he won the university's John Lee Medal for breath of knowledge, academic success and community service. His GPA was 3.93.
It was Michaela Fissel's junior year in college. She had just transferred from Manchester Community College to Central Connecticut State University and was in a statistics class when she started to panic.
"All of a sudden everything got really dark. The world was closing in on me. I started hyperventilating," she said. She left the class and landed a few hours later in a hospital.
Fissel had had a breakdown and attempted suicide when she was in high school. Now a single mother, enrolled in a new college and sitting in a tough course — the stress of the situation seemed to be triggering old problems.
"I had recurring thoughts," Fissel recalls now. "Why am I even here? Why am I even doing this? I don't like my life. ... I was just getting lower and lower and lower. Losing grip on reality, losing the motivation to live.'
"Now I have pretty good control of my thoughts, but at that point, I didn't have any control of my thoughts. It was like there was somebody inside of my head telling me, 'You're worthless, you're never going to do anything with your life. Why don't you just end it so you can put everyone out of their misery.' "
That fall, in 2007, Fissel was in and out of the hospital for several short stays, tried to kill herself again and eventually was given a diagnosis: bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. When she was released from the hospital, she was put in a special program where she spent half the day in treatment and the other half in college.
Through the tumultuous time, she managed to keep up with a reduced load of classes and do reasonably well. "I had committed myself to college," she said. "The routine of doing some work everyday, studying for exams and going to classes. It became part of me. So when I was in the hospital — that's what I thought about."
Three years later, Fissel is newly minted graduate of CCSU with a psychology degree, a research job, and plans to pursue a doctorate in another year.
How did she manage to navigate the demands of college, while also working, raising her child, Dillan, now almost 4, and dealing with mental illness? Being open and honest about her illness helped a lot, she said.
"When I got out of the hospital I went to my professors and I said I was just hospitalized with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I tried to kill myself. I said I'm not telling you this to burden you with this information, but I need you to be aware of the fact that this could happen again.''
The response she received was reassuring with professors agreeing to let her know if her grade was in jeopardy because of absences.
Fissel also took advantage of a supportive mental health program at Central. A counselor there became her mentor and steady adviser. She also joined a campus support group for students dealing with mental illness. "Seeing the steps of their recovery," she said of others in the group, helped her to "see the steps of my recovery."
She also became president of a group on campus that tried to raise awareness of mental health issues. Her advice to students entering college with mental health concerns? "So many people are out there willing to support you in any way they can, but the only way they'll know if you need support is if you seek that and you are open about your needs."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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