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If you're homeless and in college, what do you do when the dorms close? She faced it.

How one young woman not only escaped homelessness and finished college but is helping others.

If you're homeless and in college, what do you do when the dorms close? She faced it.

This is an original piece by Jessica Sutherland, first featured on Bright and reprinted here with permission. To read more pieces like this, go to Bright and hit the follow button.

The Secret Lives of Homeless Students

After years of homelessness, I graduated college and a competitive master's program. What about the other million-plus homeless students in the U.S.?

By Jessica Sutherland


Did you know that there are an estimated 1.2 million homeless students in American K-12 schools? For many years, I was one of them. My mother and I lived in the same motel room from kindergarten through third grade; after a few years in a “real" home that ended when I was 11, we spent the next six straight years in a cycle of chronic homelessness in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

To many people, homelessness evokes images of bums in tent cities, or families sleeping in a station wagon. While we spent our share of time sleeping in a shelter or a car, my childhood homelessness was mostly spent doing what my mother — still, to this day — prefers to call “bouncing around": living in motel rooms, or sleeping in whatever extra space people could find for us in their homes, for as long as we could stretch our welcome. Occasionally, we'd have an apartment for a few months, but we'd never have any furniture, and we'd always get evicted.

Refusing to call our lifestyle “chronic homelessness" didn't mean we didn't keep it a secret, or feel ashamed of it. I spent most of my teen years attending school illegally in my father's sleepy hometown; I was intensely aware that I needed to seem as normal as possible to avoid detection. I didn't completely know the consequences, but I was certain that if people found out, I would get removed to foster care and end up in a new school.

Left: 7th grade yearbook picture. We were living with my godmother when this was taken, but by Christmas, we were in a shelter. Right: 8th grade yearbook picture. We were definitely homeless and I cut my own bangs. All images via Jessica Sutherland and used with permission.

Foster care sounded better than my makeshift life with my mother, but I refused to risk losing my school. My school was my safest place, full of friends I'd known forever — even though I had to keep secrets from them. After spending just one week in a Cleveland public school while staying at a downtown shelter in seventh grade, I was very aware of the quality of education I would lose if we ever got caught. My suburban school was the ticket to the future I knew I was supposed to have: a college education.

I was given several advantages at birth — an able body, an active imagination, a pretty face. From a young age, I developed a sense of entitlement to go with them. When a stranger drew my portrait on a bus when I was in preschool, my mother told me it was because I was the most extraordinary little girl in the world. My early elementary years were spent in a magnet school that laid a great academic foundation and cultivated big dreams. Even when my grades dropped, as homelessness became my normal existence, it never occurred to me that I might not go to college.

I was finally removed to foster care senior year, but thanks to some powerful and clever people, I didn't miss a day at my beloved high school. However, I wasn't able to take my college entrance exams until after graduating — at the top third of my class (literally, I was 101 out of 303). I took the ACT the Saturday after receiving my diploma, with none of the prep most of my friends had, and still managed to swing a 30. I was ecstatic: with that score and my decent GPA, I had a great chance of getting into college next year. I was certain that a life full of opportunity and success would follow.


I only got senior pictures because the photo company chose me to use in advertising, so they were free.

My foster parents made no mention of forcing me out of their home once I turned 18, but as my birthday loomed, I realized I had no plans for my life between high school and college. I began to work more hours at the 24-hour diner by the freeway, saving money and sleeping little. I knew I needed to figure out what happened next. I was about to be a legal adult, but I still felt very much like a foster kid.

A late-night TV commercial caught my notice after a long shift at the diner: the nearest state school, Cleveland State University, was still accepting applications. I dragged a dear friend on a campus tour the following week. It was weird to be choosing a college in July. My friend was going to a fancy private school a few hours away, but she validated my excitement when we toured the largely commuter school's lone dormitory, a converted Holiday Inn.

“I can see you living here," she said. And so I applied.

At my interview, the admissions officer asked me why, with stats like mine, I would ever apply there. At the time, the school was not known for high standards of admission.

I didn't tell her I was a foster kid with nowhere else to go; I didn't tell her it was my only chance to avoid a gap year; I didn't tell her the structure of the dorm seemed like a better idea than living on my own at 18. I simply expressed my desire to learn.

My acceptance letter arrived within the week. My beautiful parents allowed me to stay with them, rent-free, for the two months between my birthday and the dorm's move-in day. I checked the right boxes on my FAFSA and got grants and academic scholarships I needed to cover most of my expenses. I walked onto two sports teams, in order to cover the rest without loans.

I was going to college, without a gap year interrupting my education. But it never occurred to me that I might not graduate.

"However, a familiar panic set in: where would I live until then? I didn't want to take summer classes just so I could keep my dorm room."

I breezed through my freshman and sophomore years. Those are the days I think of fondly as my most typical college experience.

As a cheerleader for a Division I basketball team, and a mid-distance runner, I was more sheltered and supported than I realized. A small staff oversaw my medical health, while another tracked my academic performance and guided me towards graduation. Thanks to mandatory team study halls and frequent physical therapy in the training room, most of my social circle was comprised of other athletes.

Getting tossed in the air as a CSU Vikings cheerleader.

I traveled for my teams, and I traveled with my friends. I spent spring break in Florida and threw up in the sink of a beachfront McDonald's (to this day, I can't hold my alcohol). I was assigned a crazy roommate who used to stand over me in my sleep, but it wasn't until she threatened to throw me out of a window, in front of our RA, that I learned that I could do something about it. I was upgraded to a large single, and my baseball-playing boyfriend began to spend the night most of the time. I worked at a ridiculously expensive clothing store in a nearby mall.

I was a normal college kid.

Freshman year.

By the end of sophomore year, I was eager to keep up with my friends who felt they were too old for the dorm. I agreed to move into a house with a fellow athlete that coming fall.

However, a familiar panic set in: where would I live until then? I didn't want to take summer classes just so I could keep my dorm room. Even if I did, I would still have to move out of the dorm for two weeks between semesters. I'd spent those closures at my foster parents' house in the past, but the room where I slept had since been converted to an office.

“I have an idea," my baseball-playing boyfriend said to me one night. “You should move into my room for the summer. My mom won't care." He was headed out of state, to play in some competitive league for the entire summer.

“No way. I could never ask her to do that. She'd never say yes."

“I already asked her. She already did."

"Nobody was keeping me in line; nobody was telling me I was allowed to make mistakes."

Junior year was a disaster. My friend and I found an apartment, but she secretly decided to transfer schools mid-year, so she never signed the lease. When she moved out, I was responsible for more rent than I could afford. I soon began working at a downtown brewery more, and going to school less. There was nobody to ask for help or guidance, and my attempts to live with other roommates failed miserably.

Ultimately, I broke the lease and moved into a much cheaper and crummier apartment in a much worse neighborhood. My baseball-playing boyfriend and I fought constantly, and finally broke up. I dabbled in a different major, and my grades plummeted. I'd quit athletics that year, and my life suddenly lacked the excitement and structure it once had. Nobody was keeping me in line; nobody was telling me I was allowed to make mistakes.

For the first time in my life, I got an F on my report card. I decided I needed to take a semester off.

When I told my family about leaving school, nobody challenged me. Nobody told me it was a bad idea to drop out, that nearly half of college dropouts will never return to finish their degree. At 20, completely on my own, I needed an advocate, a mentor, a bossy guide to force me to take the harder road.

But as much as I needed a kick in the butt, nobody told me to keep going. So I didn't.

I dropped out for what became five years, before finally hitting a ceiling at my sales job that could only be shattered with either three more years of experience or a college degree. My boss had always insisted that I was too good for sales, and he strongly encouraged me to finish my bachelor's so I could have more choices.

So, at 25 years of age, I decided to finish what I had started, and returned to Cleveland State as a junior. I didn't have the support of the athletic department, but I had enough life experience to navigate the madness of choosing the right classes and filling out endless paperwork. I knew how to pay bills and keep a roof over my head.

In the meantime, Cleveland State had made vast improvements, and so tuition had tripled. I had no choice but to take out loans to offset what grants didn't cover. I took work as a cocktail waitress to pay my bills.

My first Film Festival, with a film I made in undergrad.

In 18 months, I had my degree — and decided to continue my education even further. After internships and student projects at local news stations and with the Cleveland Indians, I knew I wanted to work in film and television. I had always fantasized about attending film school, but it wasn't until two of my CSU professors pushed me to apply that I thought I might actually get accepted. They were right about me: I got in everywhere I applied, and chose the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts for my Master of Fine Arts.

While packing to move to Los Angeles, I found a box with abandoned applications and glossy USC brochures from years past. USC had been my dream school for nearly a decade, especially while I was dropped out of college. I smiled to myself as I realized how far I'd come. That abandoned dream was about to become reality.

By 2012, I had a master's degree from USC and a good job at Yahoo!, which I thought was everything I wanted. I always knew I would tell my story one day; now that I had a happy ending, I had the power to help other homeless kids like I once was.

Graduating USC.

Eventually, I went to observe “Mondays at the Mission," a wonderful life skills class for teenagers at the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles' Skid Row. When a scheduled speaker got stuck in traffic, I was asked to share my story as a backup. I remember feeling unbelievably nervous. Though it was my story, there was a lot to say, and I had nothing prepared. Before I could say no, founder Christopher Kai assured me that my story was worth telling. I pushed through, speaking for 45 minutes.

I wanted those children to know they had nothing to be ashamed of, that homelessness is not permanent, and that scars heal. Most importantly, I wanted them to learn to ask for help. Once I'd learned to ask for help, to accept it, and to trust others, my life got so much better. I told them that nobody was waiting for them to fail. They had to be brave and open up to trusted adults.

My speech captivated the kids. One student asked me why I didn't cry as I told my sad story. I said that even when things hurt us, wounds heal. Scars remind us of the pain we've survived, but they themselves do not hurt anymore.

After class, a soft-spoken boy named James lingered. I only came up to his shoulders, but his shyness made him seem half my size. “Do you think you could help me get into college?" he asked.

I took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. I'd barely gotten into college myself, but…

“Absolutely."

The first photo James and I ever took together.

A year later, my young friend was accepted into 9 out of the 13 schools he'd applied to. In the end, he chose Howard University. He also chose student loans, which are, with rare exception, a necessary evil when attempting to better oneself through higher education.

When his Parent PLUS loans were declined, due — somewhat ironically — to his family's poverty, I created a crowd-funder for him on Tumblr, using the hashtag #HomelessToHoward. It went viral overnight. Within two weeks, we'd raised so much money that I had to apply to start a nonprofit in order to protect the funding as scholarship, rather than income.

I had a master's degree in my dream field, from my dream school; I was on track to a decent career as a producer. While I'd always hoped to inspire young people with my story one day, I hadn't planned to give up my producing career just as it began. I was ill-equipped to run a nonprofit to help homeless kids. But by this point, I'd realized that my life doesn't always go according to plan.

"Yet somehow, when all was nearly lost, someone always saved my day, cheered me on, and pushed me forward. What if Homeless to Higher Ed could be that someone for the 56,000 homeless kids in our colleges today?"

Most nonprofits start with an idea. Planning comes next, then fundraising, and then hopefully publicity. My organization, Homeless to Higher Ed, was built in reverse: We raised money and went public before I knew what our precise mission would be.

I watched my young mentee closely as he transitioned to a college student and mini-celebrity. I quickly realized that money didn't provide everything he needed to thrive; there was so much more to it than that. So I began researching homeless students in American colleges. And I was shocked to find that I could see myself in the statistics.

There were over 56,000 homeless and aged-out foster youth enrolled in American colleges in 2014. I learned that more than 90% of them won't graduate within six years. It took me nine years to get my bachelor's.

Even in a dismal economy, unemployment rates decrease as education level rises: to wit, education is the most reliable escape from poverty. And the most consistent indicator of success in college is whether or not the student's parents attended college. I had no college-educated relatives guiding me.

I also learned that homeless college students tend to be secretive. Fiercely independent. Eager to fit in. Afraid they have no right to be in college. Ashamed of their poverty. Paranoid about what poverty says about them to others. These traits combine to make them hard to identify — and it's even more challenging to get homeless students to accept help, much less ask for it. Daresay that most of them think they don't need it.

I'd never really thought about the odds that I'd beaten to get where I was. To me, it was the only normal course for my life, and failure wasn't an option. Except, of course, for all those times when it was.

Yet somehow, when all was nearly lost, someone always saved my day, cheered me on, and pushed me forward. What if Homeless to Higher Ed could be that someone for the 56,000 homeless kids in our colleges today?

“Homeless college students? That's a thing?"

Six months after incorporating the nonprofit, I had our mission: to normalize the college experience for homeless and aged-out foster youth. This also means that we need to de-stigmatize homelessness, so students in need will self-identify and get the help they need.

I often joke that my greatest shame is now my claim to fame. It's now impossible to Google me and not know that I spent a long time homeless. It's not something I've hidden about myself; I've been open about my childhood for my entire adult life. However, homeless students in college are often quite ashamed of their background, and struggle mightily to hide it. In fact, that 56,000 number is likely just a fraction of the actual homeless and aged-out foster youth in American colleges today, since it's based solely on students' willingness to self-report.

9 times out of 10, whenever I tell someone that I am building an organization that helps normalize the college experience for homeless students, the reaction is, “Homeless college students? That's a thing?"

Yeah. It's a thing. But it doesn't have to be.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."