College gave Kristen Lang “the opportunity to create my next chapter – to be better, not bitter.”
Helped by a scholarship from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Kristen earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Benedict College, an historically black college in South Carolina. She graduated in May with high honors and is making plans to go to graduate school.
Kristen worked hard at Benedict. She was elected to student government, presided over the Phi Beta Lambda business club, and worked for the dean of the business school. She was named Benedict’s “Business Student of the Year” before she graduated, completing her degree on time in four years.
With college came success – “and less worries, as in being able to have a dorm room I could go to every night,” Kristen recalls. “Because in Chicago, I mostly lived house to house. I didn’t have a real home, a loving home, until I was adopted in my senior year of high school.”
Homeless more than six years, Kristen and her sister were left to drift among the homes of various relatives. Despite early difficulties in a household that included her mother’s abusive boyfriend, the family split up when Kristen was in fifth grade, after her mother went to prison for business fraud. Kristen and a sister were sent to live with their father; he struggles with addiction, so the three of them doubled-up with relatives, moving frequently.
“I changed schools four times until I finished eighth grade,” said Kristen. She says she kept up academically, but feeling some resentment as a young teen, she would mouth off to teachers.
“I was a jerk,” she admits. “But after freshman year, I started at After School Matters. There, people paid attention to you. Because I was working to earn money, I didn’t want to get fired, so I had to work on my attitude. If I was smart-alecky, I was corrected. They’d sit you down and ask why are you acting like this? I realized I was mad for lack of a mom.”
Kristen decided to focus on her future and doing well at her South Side high school. Life improved, including longer stays with the family of her father’s cousin, a single mom of three. One of the happiest moments of Kristen’s life was when she was asked to join their family permanently.
“She told me, ‘I’ve been thinking about it and we had a family meeting about it. You’re like a daughter to me and I love you.’ Her name is Tina and she’s a wonderful person. I also lived there in the summer during college and now that I’ve graduated.”
Kristen remembers feeling homesick her first weeks at college. But she made friends and got active in school, later hosting “vision board parties” for students to talk about their goals. She says she realized, “Nobody knew where I came from. All that stuff didn’t matter. I could be the person I wanted to grow into, that I wanted the world to see me as.”
Months since graduating, Kristen works in a Chicago school. She is also making plans to earn graduate degrees that would lead to a career in higher education.
“I want to be Dr. Lang. It rings a bell,” she says, smiling.
– Story by Anne Bowhay / Photo by Allison Williams