Gesenia Viviescas holds many identities. She is a master’s student. A Fulbright scholar. A woman of color. She is a chef and entrepreneur, co-owning a cooking business with her mother. She is a sister and daughter. An aspiring social worker. A writer. Gesenia has also experienced homelessness.
Growing up, Gesenia remembers having an “obscured” feeling of home, moving from Chicago, to Florida, to her parents’ native Colombia. As teens, Gesenia and her sister moved back to Chicago for high school, seeking better educational opportunities. They initially stayed with a family member, later bouncing around multiple friends’ and relatives’ houses. Gesenia sold chocolate bars to provide for herself and her sister.
Though they received support from the Students in Temporary Living Situations program at Carl Schurz High School, Gesenia did not identify as homeless at the time. “It was such a stigmatized thing to be homeless,” Gesenia said. “There was a lot of shame and guilt.”
Encouraged by a school counselor, Gesenia applied for a scholarship from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in 2013.
“When I interviewed for the CCH scholarship, it was the first time I ever shared my full story,” Gesenia recalled. “It was impactful to be with people who had experienced similar situations, and who were offering me comfort and understanding instead of judgment.”
With support from CCH, Gesenia attended DePauw University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies in 2017.
Though she excelled in her classes and extracurriculars, Gesenia faced unique challenges as an unaccompanied college student.
“It was hard because I was surrounded by so much privilege,” she said. “So many of my peers did not have the same worries that I did. The narrative that college students can be homeless hasn’t registered for a lot of people.”
Throughout these challenges, “CCH was there for me in a way that no one else was,” Gesenia said. CCH staff negotiated with college officials to allow Gesenia to stay on campus during school breaks and connected her to academic resources and mentors.
Gesenia cites creating a scholarship program through her sorority and spending a year in Taiwan through Fulbright as some of her proudest accomplishments. That, and deepening her relationship with her mother through their shared love of cooking.
Today, Gesenia is pursuing dual master’s degrees in social work and women’s and gender studies at DePaul University. She is a social work intern with CCH’s legal aid program and serves as a member of CCH’s scholarship selection committee.
“It’s been really interesting to be on the flip side,” said Gesenia. “It is a reminder of my own story but also a reminder that there are still so many youth that have to figure out ‘Where am I sleeping? When am I eating?’ There’s something deeply special about being able to be in a professional setting that supports youth’s humanity.”
After completing her dual master’s, Gesenia plans to get a clinical therapy license and start her own practice. She also wants to open a community center rooted in empowerment and healing.
“Healing isn’t linear,” is a message Gesenia continues to share with CCH scholarship recipients. “There will be times when things feel like they’re okay, and there will be times when they won’t. Both of those things are acceptable, and you should hold yourself to feeling.”