• Ashley Johnson

A Testimony of Overcoming Poverty and Gaining College Access and Success

This month we are featuring Amanda Livengood, Communications Manager for Detroit College Access Network. She is a Class of 2004 Central Michigan University Alumna. Amanda reflects on her senior year in high school and her barriers to college access and success.

Showing up for the first day of college is hard for many students, especially low-income and first-generation college students. As I attended one of the over 35 College Signing Days in Detroit, I reflected on what my senior year in high school had been and all that I had to overcome to enroll into college. Although I am from a rural Michigan community, I soon discovered that low-income and/or first-generation students, no matter where they are from, often experience and must overcome the same barriers. As for myself, the lack of secure housing and the many other struggles that come along with growing up in a low-income household.

During the summer of 1999 and into my senior year of high school later that fall, I faced many challenges. My family’s home was foreclosed on. Because of our low household income, my father, sister and I were forced to move into a mobile home with no furnace to heat it. I was nervous about how we would be able to live in a home without heat when the cold weather came, but we had no choice. Without a driver’s license, I drove our family’s only car, packed with all our belongings, across town to the rental mobile home. We settled in and I soon began my senior year. That fall, I met with my guidance counselor once to discuss my plan after graduation. I participated in a college tour at Central Michigan University to familiarize myself with their college campus, courses and programs, and college life. I filled out my CMU college application at my Grandma’s kitchen table, while she told me to have a Plan B with community college. I applied for admission to Central Michigan University and waited for their answer. In the meantime, as fall temperatures plummeted, my family moved into a local resort cabin for the winter, thankfully with heat.

On Christmas Eve, I got an acceptance letter from Central Michigan University! I was excited about the opportunity and proud to be accepted to CMU. I was able to catch a ride with my best friend and her mom to tour CMU again, this time as a future student. During the tour, I was able to make choices about what I would study, where I would live, and how I would eat. In my home life, I was already making these kinds of choices, even more so during my senior year in high school. Over the winter, I completed my FAFSA, again, at my Grandmother’s kitchen table, listening to her tell me I probably wouldn’t get much money and to be prepared to work and study locally.

After staying in the cabin all winter, and we moved again, this time on the day of my senior class party. I did not know that I would be moving again. My sister and I got off the bus at our home at the resort where my dad picked us up and drove us to yet another resort leading us into another cabin, and proclaiming, “We moved again!” I was stunned. I quickly readied myself for the all-night senior party at my high school and tried to have a good time when I got there. Honestly, though, I didn’t have a good time because I was upset that we’d moved without notice. Again, we had no choice because of our household’s small income. At the senior party, I won a $25 savings bond. I cashed that bond as soon as I left the party and I got the $10 that I could get from the bond. We needed the cash.

Graduation day came, with my family in town visiting at our “resort home.” I sat on my bed and filled out my acceptance letter to Central Michigan University, picked out my orientation date, and completed my dorm information forms. I even opened a few graduation presents. Soon after graduating, we moved yet again, this time into a camper in a friend’s yard. I started my summer job at a campground, ironically.

I attended CMU orientation weekend with a family friend acting as my parent due to lack of parent support and reliable transportation. She filled out paperwork in my father’s name and gave me the packet and had me review it. While working over the summer, I opened my first bank account, and worked as much as I could to save money for college and to provide a rental home for my family. We moved from the camper in the yard. I paid our new landlord first and last month’s rent and a security deposit while my dad signed the rental agreement. My sister got a job at an ice-cream shop and then a second job at a restaurant. She paid for a household phone line and cable, neither of which we had growing up in our family home; those were bonuses. The one-bedroom rental that I’d saved and paid for was a modified garage, complete with cement floor and black mold in the bathroom. Our home was unsafe and uncomfortable. After complaints were filed, the landlord was arrested for committing acts of a slumlord. I continued paying rent all summer.

We made it through the summer, and, in the fall, I moved to CMU. My Aunt drove me to CMU and, as we left my home, she told me not to look back. I did look back. I cried, hard. We stopped at an outlet mall a few hours away and I shopped for new clothes. I moved into the dorm easily, needing only one trip from the car because I didn’t have much to move with me into my dorm at CMU.

As I reflect on what it took for me to get to Central Michigan University above all odds, I remember key moments: the high school college bus tour; the college tour that I commuted to with my best friend and her mom; attending campus orientation and completing paperwork with a family-friend; and, finally, moving away from my family home and into my dorm at CMU on move-in day with my Aunt. It took two schools and four women to ensure I made it to CMU, despite moving five times during my senior year. Not all high schools provide college tours. Not all students can ‘hitch a ride’ to go on a family tour of a college campus and not all students have families that can attend family tours. Not all students can attend college orientations due to transportation, financial, or medical barriers or, simply, family responsibilities.

I graduated from CMU and am thankful every day to have had the support of my schools, my family, and my friends in obtaining my degree. I am also thankful to have had the challenging journey that I did. I am better able to advocate for students of low-income households and for first-generation college bound students in Detroit and rural areas of Michigan who want to continue to postsecondary education. I understand their struggles and the determination they need to overcome barriers that come with poverty. My message to these students is I have been where you are and had to overcome these barriers. I say to you DO NOT GIVE UP YOU CAN DO THIS!

Postsecondary education opportunities include career, military, trade, certificate programs, and college or university. As a proud example of what is possible, I am committed to helping communities who face barriers to education. As a community, let us open doors to access postsecondary education by tearing down those barriers.

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Detroit College Access Network

1 Woodward Ave, Suite 1900, Detroit, MI 48226  |  Tel: 313-600-1827

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