Growing up, I was very observant. My family lived pay check to pay check and I observed my mother’s struggle. We never had the opportunity to enjoy the luxuries in life but she made sure always had food on the table. I also saw that not everyone’s life was like that. There were others – in my school and in the world around me – that didn’t have to struggle day to day. I made up my mind at the age of 11 that I would do whatever it takes to make a better life for me and for my mom. I had heard from some of my teachers, like Ms. Incognito in 2nd grade, and from shows I watched on TV, that college was the answer to all my problems. It would make me rich and famous! But, how was I going to get there? I was this shy little 11-year old with very few resources.
One day when I was a 6th grader at Kealing Middle School, my teacher Mr. Perkins told me about a program called Breakthrough that could help me graduate from college. He told me about the commitment and hard work it would take – 6 week program in the summer (sounded like summer school to me), Saturdays and after school during the school year, and it went on for years until after high school, until I would be really old! I admit I was of two minds. One was thrilled to find the help that I had been looking for. Another part wasn’t sure I wanted to commit (I mean, summer school?). But Mr. Perkins pushed me to apply and I’ll be forever grateful he did.
The first time I ever stepped foot on a college campus was my first day at Breakthrough. It was a hot day in June of 2005 when I walked up the south mall at UT into the auditorium, Calhoun 100. I was nervous and not sure what to expect. I remember the shock I received when I walked in that room. There were dozens of middle school students just like me singing songs, doing cheers, and grinning from ear to ear. And, even more shocking, was the sight of their teachers doing the same right along with them. Everyone (I mean everyone) clearly wanted to be there and that feeling never changed as I kept coming back to UT day after day…I would join in this crazy morning assembly and find myself screaming Breakthrough Austin Got Soul and then spend the rest of the day working my tail off in math class and getting in deep conversations about civil rights in social studies. More than anything, I was lifted up by this great feeling of being surrounded by individuals that we’re all about my education and my future.
That support surrounded me throughout the school year. I thrived in middle school and was ready to launch into my hardest school yet, the McCallum Fine Arts Academy. As high school got harder and harder, I leaned on my Breakthrough advisor, Andrea. Andrea is the most genuine kind hearted person I’ve ever met in my life. She asked me questions like, “What do you want to do in your life? What college will help you get there? Why, Felicia, aren’t you in pre-AP Geography? You know you got it in you!” She sat with me every week of my high school life to make plans and solve problems. I needed that pushing, driving, questioning love and, again, I felt like I was getting there, like I was blossoming. College was right around the corner. Nothing could stop me.
Then, life then took a turn. I lost my father my junior year. My grief was total and my world crumbled underneath my feet. I lost my motivation for my school work, dancing, and even running, something my father had inspired me to do my whole life. To make matters much worse, my mom and I became homeless as she was unable to make the payments without my father’s financial support. We skipped from house to house with extended family for more than a year. There were times I didn’t go to school at all and, when I did, I would often arrive late. My priorities in life were turned upside down. How could I keep these selfish, expensive dreams of college going when my family needed me just to survive? To be honest, this entire period, lasting more than a year, was like a fog in my head, a haze that smothered my dreams and hopes for my future. What pierced through the hardship was my love for my mother and the support I had from Breakthrough. Andrea, my wonderful advisor, was there at my school and at whatever couch I was at. She was this consistent support to make sure I could get as many days of learning as possible, helped communicate with my assistant principal, gave us bus passes so we could get around, and truly acted like my second mom. She would ask, with genuine care, every day, “Felicia, are you ok?”
The haze finally lifted as we were able to find stable housing my senior year. Andrea kept gently pushing me to complete the thousand steps it takes to apply to college. My turning point was when my mom said to me, “Felicia Faye, you need to go to college. Mama got this, okay?” Knowing that she wasn’t able to finish high school, my mom instilled education in my life because she knew it’s what we needed to make it in this world. She would always tell me that she did not want me to live the way she had to. That’s love! Her drive for me to succeed and go to college has always stuck with me. And so, I did it. Tonight, I’m incredibly proud to tell you now that not only did I graduate from McCallum High School but, just last year, I was the first in my family to walk across the college stage with a Bachelors of Science in Criminal Justice from my HBCU, Prairie View A&M University.
My struggle has molded and transformed me into the young woman I am today. I am a first generation college graduate who is determined to make a difference in the life of young people who are in, or have family members in, the criminal justice system. This year, I am giving back by serving a year as an AmeriCorps member at Breakthrough, where I have the honor of advising high school students, just like Andrea did for me. Thank you, Breakthrough, for all you have done to support me to realize the dreams I had as an 11-year old-girl. And, thank you all for being here and for letting me share my story.