Nasia Smith is the first college scholarship winner at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to earn a bachelor’s degree as a single parent. She worked full-time to support her young son while earning a business degree.
We think Nasia tells her story better than anyone else:
Life before I left for college was difficult. I am one of six kids, and we were in foster care before my grandmother took us in. She died when I was in fifth grade. We went to live with my great-aunt, but when I became pregnant at 16, I was kicked out.
CCH youth attorney Beth Cunningham did outreach at my new school, a high school for pregnant girls. I was already homeless at that point. I didn’t know what to do. I was about ready to drop out. I was emotionally drained and didn’t feel I was important. Beth encouraged me and she helped me obtain public benefits, but we were unable to find youth housing with room for my son, Jarrett, and me.
We lived with nine different people the next two years. I enrolled my son in childcare while I attended Youth Connection Leadership Academy. I was elected president of the Student Council and captain of the drill team. I also graduated second in my class in 2009, and CCH awarded me a scholarship.
I enrolled at Philander Smith, a historically black college in Little Rock, Arkansas. Jarrett attended Head Start while I studied and worked in women’s clothing stores. I studied before and after classes, and when I got off work, I’d stay up late and prepare for class the next day. One of the highlights in college is that I was selected three times to attend the Clinton Global Initiative, a national conference where I was invited to be a youth panelist twice.
I used the scholarship to pay for housing for my son and me because we could not live in college housing. For five years, it meant that I had five months that I wasn’t stressed about rent and could save up. In the end, I borrowed less than $10,000 for college.
It took an extra year to complete my degree after I switched my major to business and transferred to the University of Arkansas. Before I graduated with honors in May, I found a job managing a store in Dallas, Texas, near my fiancé, who works as an accountant.
CCH honors graduates at the scholarship event, and this year I was the featured speaker. My great-aunt was there, too. Here is part of what I told the students:
I am in no position to give advice, because my experiences have been different than each of your experiences. We all learn in different ways, have diverse interests, and reach for the goals of our own heart’s desires. However, we all gain life experience: one mistake, one success, one memory at a time. Collectively we have not just an education in school, but in life. The piece of paper that I received is merely a stamp of approval for learning what is required, but what is more important is what we require of ourselves.
Thank you for supporting the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Your help allows it to work on behalf of people like me, and so many others.
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless assists youth in need
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) enrolled 22,144 homeless children and teens last school year, a year’s increase of 18.6%. Statewide, public schools counted 59,112 homeless pupils, a 7.7% increase. This includes students doubled-up with others due to economic hardship.
Four legal aid attorneys helped 298 homeless students and youth in 2013-14, comprising 97% of their total caseload. Outreach by Youth Futures mobile legal aid clinic reached more than 1,500 youth.
Sixty-seven percent of our youth clients were unaccompanied, as Nasia was – homeless and on her own, without parent or guardian. CPS counted 2,508 of these youths in city schools last year.
CCH wrote and advocated for the new state law that allows unaccompanied minors to consent to their own non-emergency care at health clinics in their schools and neighborhoods. It removes a significant barrier for more than 7,000 Illinois minors, ages 14 to 18, who could not access medical care for ailments such as strep throat or asthma.
To assist and showcase homeless students, CCH awards $2,000 renewable scholarships funded by private donors. In 11 years, CCH has awarded more than $180,000 to 44 college students.
CCH mobilizes a Youth Committee of 44 youth service providers from across Illinois. We advocate for resources for unaccompanied youth: 546 youth shelter beds are now available in Illinois, including 114 overnight beds added in Chicago in three years.
– Photos by Jeff Foy, story by Anne Bowhay