UPDATED: February 16, 2022
CINCINNATI, Ohio (August 30, 2021) — It is a few hours before the 2021 summer commencement at the University of Cincinnati. At nearby Burnet Woods, Jaleshia Brown sits on the gazebo steps, telling her story. The 26-year-old overcame enormous odds to be able to graduate with a bachelor's degree on this day. But as the ceremony approaches, she says she has not yet allowed herself to revel in her achievement.
"I think once I'm actually there in the moment, I'll feel differently. I mean, it does feel good, and I'm very thankful to all the people along the way who helped with this. Without HEMI [Higher Education Mentorship Initiative], I know for a fact I would never have gotten this far."
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Her father has been in prison her entire life. Her mother was deemed unfit to care for Jaleshia and her four sisters. "She always chose men over us," Jaleshia says. "We were homeless a lot. I remember going in and out of shelters." Once, at a shelter for women and children, her mother was caught sneaking a man in, and they all were thrown out.
Jaleshia was 7 when Job and Family Services placed the five girls in foster care. "(Our mother) told us to pack a couple of outfits—'It'll only be for a couple of days.' We aged out of foster care. She never got us back."
Foster care was a common thread running through Jaleshia's family. At times, she says, her mother, maternal grandmother, father and paternal grandfather spent time in foster homes.
Jaleshia's first foster parents tried hard to show her love, but she spurned them, believing they were motivated only by the monthly payments they received. She felt no better about her second foster home. At age 16, she transitioned to an independent living program.
In her junior year of high school, her caseworker told her about a program for Hamilton County foster youth, called HEMI. The Higher Education Mentoring Initiative matches a teen with a personal academic mentor who helps prepare the young person for post-secondary education, job training, or military service. HEMI's main partners are United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Hamilton County Job and Family Services and Found Village.
"When I first started, I wasn't crazy about it," Jaleshia says. "But at that point, I realized this is my life. I need whatever help I can get."
Jaleshia was introduced to her volunteer mentor, a woman named Lee Armstrong. "I was looking for a way to get more involved and to help somebody improve their life," says Armstrong, now director of international programs for UC's Lindner College of Business. She helped the teen navigate the college admissions process, which included applying for financial aid and scholarships.
Jaleshia enrolled at Wright State University and did well in her first semester, but then she fell in with the wrong crowd. She was kicked out of her dormitory, placed on academic probation and eventually dismissed from the school. By then, she had mostly lost touch with her HEMI mentor. But "I was here, if and when she was ready," Armstrong says.
A year later, Jaleshia gave birth to a son, Roddel. Mindful of her own mother's failings, "I wanted to be the best mom I could be." She took parenting classes and worked two jobs, and she decided to return to school so she could one day provide a stable, financially secure home environment for her son.
Jaleshia reached out to Sarah Mangan Lawson, who was then the HEMI program specialist. Lawson reconnected her with Armstrong. "Sarah went out of her way so many times for me, helping with things that had nothing to do with school," Jaleshia says. "And Lee has been a tremendous help, making sure I get to events and orientations, helping with registration, and (financial aid forms)."
Jaleshia enrolled at Cincinnati State and earned an associate degree. She then enrolled at UC Blue Ash College, before transferring to UC's main campus. Her decision to major in criminal justice can be traced to the traumatic experiences of her childhood. Her family often lived amidst chaos, but when the police came, calm ensued. So, as a little girl, Jaleshia wanted to be a police officer. Her long-range goal is to work for the Department of Homeland Security.
In college, Jaleshia juggled classes, parenting and a job, sometimes working 16-hour shifts. "There were days I was running on two to three hours sleep. There were many days I skipped showering. I just wanted to sleep." When Roddel began acting out in preschool, Jaleshia made room in her packed schedule for appointments with behavior specialists.
It was all too much. Jaleshia says she became burned out and depressed. She began drinking heavily. While in a relationship with a man who became increasingly abusive, she suffered a brief mental breakdown.
When she needed help—whether it was school-related, or a medical or mental health issue, or a matter of not having enough money to buy food or pay her rent—she could turn to Armstrong or Lawson.
"No matter what it was, I could reach out," Jaleshia says, "and every time, they had a connection with everybody. All the resources someone could possibly need to succeed, they already had a connection to them, which made things that much easier."
She started seeing mental health professionals. She curbed her drinking. She broke off the abusive relationship. And she continued to pursue a bachelor's degree.
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Over the course of her journey, Jaleshia's perspective changed. She let go of the anger and bitterness she felt toward her mother. She recognizes that her first foster family genuinely cared about her. "To this day, I consider them my parents," she says. She has met several times with her imprisoned birth father, who is serving a life sentence. He regularly calls her, emails her, sends photos.
Jaleshia has seen the statistic: fewer than 10 percent of foster children earn a college degree. She knows she defied the odds. But with few, if any, of her family and friends expected to attend the UC graduation ceremony, she considered skipping it. Armstrong, though, urged her to go, to celebrate her exceptional accomplishment. They went together.
Sitting in the stands at UC's Fifth Third Arena, Armstrong saw a far different person than the 16-year-old she met 10 years ago. She saw a mature young woman, resilient and resolute.
In the procession of new graduates, Jaleshia looked up into the crowd. This was her moment. She waved. Her face was beaming.
"It was beautiful to see her smile and see her in a cap and gown and walking across the stage," Armstrong says. "I'm so proud of her. She's a success."