Achieving the Impossible
Children of Incarcerated Parents Navigate Path to College
YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia , Commentary, Tanea Lunsford Posted: Jun 06, 2009
Editor’s Note: One of the biggest issues facing the more than 1.7 million children of incarcerated parents in the United States is poor school performance. But those who succeed and graduate must navigate the complicated and frustrating college application process. Tanea Lundsford, 17, is a member of Project What, a leadership program that trains children of incarcerated parents to be advocates. This story was completed as part of the New America Media / YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia Education Reporting Fellowship for youth, funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
In a few weeks, I will be graduating at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater with approximately 160 other seniors from San Francisco’s School of the Arts. My mother, grandmothers, sisters and younger cousins will be there cheering. I will have a party at my house, invite all of my friends, eat until I can’t walk, and try to come to terms with the idea that I’m an adult. (I turn 18 the day before my graduation.) Everyone who has been an important influence in my life and education will be there to celebrate with me. My father will be in San Quentin waiting for us to send pictures of the event.
The number of children with an incarcerated parent in the United States is 1.7 million, a number that has been steadily increasing in the last few years. For this population, being successful in school is hard enough but the path to higher education can seem almost impossible. The children of incarcerated parents have been known to have trouble in a learning environment and are six times more likely than the regular child to be incarcerated as an adult. Now factor in one of the toughest times for college entry ever and a complicated financial aid and application process. It’s as though we were set up to fail.
My father was first incarcerated before I was born. He has been in and out of prison ever since. I grew up in the Holly Courts Projects in San Francisco with my mother and my sister. My mother essentially raised us on her own. Even though my mother did everything in her power to raise us with all of the things she thought we would want or need, my father could obviously not be replaced. We went to visit him sometime on Sunday mornings. I remember waiting in line for hours behind lots of women in too much make-up and perfume.
When I was about 12 years old, my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. My father was still incarcerated and my mother, who was always the stable one, was not herself anymore—mentally at least. I felt as if my support system was gone. I immediately became the head of the household, trying to raise my sister and hide my mother’s condition.
I started stressing about my situation at home and lag in my schoolwork. I became a C average student in a matter of weeks. It’s not surprising – it’s a statistical norm. But then I had an amazing realization that was one of the most important moments in my life. I realized that my grades and school were “my thing.” My grades were the one thing I could control while my father was locked up and my mother was unavailable in a world of depression. Ever since, I’ve been on the right track.
Throughout my high school career, I have tried my hardest to achieve grades that would secure my place at the university of my choice. While many teenagers were out at the movies, I was doing extra credit assignments. While I could have been shopping, I was taking SAT prep courses. College, for me, meant a way out – a way to break the cycle of incarceration.
Columbia University in New York City was my first choice since tenth grade, not only because of the mysterious and quick-moving city it was located in, but because of the quality of the education I could receive there. After doing my research, I finalized my decision to apply there.
So when it came time for me to take the grades I'd earned and display my hard work and academic worth on the multiple college applications, I often felt that even that wasn't enough. The average college application asks all kinds of questions: from grades to extra-curricular activities, from household income to personal achievements. However, much of the information concerning home life is simply unanswerable for someone like me. Filling in my parents’ Social Security number, and how much money is currently in their bank account can be an overwhelming process. For some people, the complexity and frustration of the process pushes people away from applying to college at all.
When it came time for Kashka Washington, a senior at Ida B. Wells High School, to choose the colleges to which she would like to apply, she felt like the process didn’t includes someone like her – someone whose father is serving time in prison.
“All the schools I applied to sound good on paper, but in the long run [the] debt and the paperwork don’t seem worth it,” she said. Washington said that the college applications were based on the idea of a "normal kid,” which alienated her. She preferred a trade or a straight route to learning a skill she can use. She will be attending ITT Tech in the fall.
“I think the problem is that the people who are making the application forms and running the college entry process don’t know anyone who is in jail,” said Joyce Anderson, an 18-year-old from Livermore, Calif. She grew up mostly in foster care because her parents were in the criminal justice system.
Anderson found the college application and financial aid forms, known as FAFSA, extremely complicated. As a foster child, Anderson is actually able to declare herself an “independent” and sidestep the process – a fact she didn’t know until late in the game. In the end, Anderson successfully navigated the process and will be attending UC Santa Cruz in the fall.
Through my own journey, I began to realize the power of my unique situation. I knew that not many applicants would be able to say that one of their parents was incarcerated and that they themselves were doing something different; they were succeeding and thriving.
On April 30, all of my hard-work--all the hours of sweating and struggling through the applications that asked questions I couldn't answer, the time spent completing the FAFSA to the best of my ability, and the hundreds of versions of my personal statement that I cranked out--paid off. I had been accepted to both Stanford and Columbia University.
Though New York is far away and I don’t have any relatives there, I feel it will be my chance to make a new academic and social life on my own. The majority of my friends will be starting off at local community colleges and making their way to a four-year school within the next two years. This makes me a little anxious about the type of people who will end up in school with me, but after going through the challenges I’ve faced, nothing could possibly take away the joy of accomplishing this dream.
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