A college degree = stability for one student who was couch surfing by age 14

For many first generation college students, a college degree is truly a ticket to a different life. Lea Cantu, a 21-year-old Dell Scholar at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX, will graduate in 2014.  Her journey from high school to college has spanned homelessness, depression and hearing loss, and yet she’s persevered. Lea’s grit, determination, and resourcefulness are, perhaps even more than her academic abilities, the qualities that we view as most predictive of students’ ultimate success in completing college and obtaining a degree.

Lea’s story: I have always found myself adept at getting what I need

I grew up in Del Valle. My parents didn’t finish high school. They had drug and alcohol habits that led to us to live in poverty. For several years I was the only one that was employed in my family. At thirteen, I started cleaning houses to buy my own clothes. Before that, I would wear my clothes until they no longer fit. At one point, I could get my pants to my hips, and then they wouldn’t budge. I used a jacket to cover it up.

I have always found myself adept at getting what I need. As fall approached in the seventh grade, I needed school supplies. So I called a few churches, and I found one near where I lived. I received a new back pack filled with supplies. I was mostly couch-surfing by age 14.

At the age of fifteen, I picked up a job at Shell convenience store, so I could pay all the bills even gas and electric, and buy food for my family. I love my parents, but somewhere between supporting myself and supporting them, I decided that my life was going to be different.

A way out of poverty: Challenges of being a first generation student in a new environment

I first heard about college in the seventh grade. I was told that it could be my way out of poverty. I didn’t hear about it again until I was in eleventh grade, when I joined College Forward.  My senior year I applied to six colleges. I was accepted to all of them. I was shocked! I chose to attend Southwestern University because they offered me a good financial aid package. I have a hearing disability, so I also wanted to attend a campus with small classes .

I was scared to go to college. I was used to moving around in one area; going to a different city was another story.  But I was happy that I would finally have food and a roof over my head.

My first semester was difficult because I was a first generation student, and I had only myself to depend on. In the dorm, I was concerned about not having a cooking area to save money. I was also worried about being homeless during the summer months, so I talked to the housing dean again who worked with me on a housing plan. I ended up in on- campus apartments. I had more stability, but I no longer ate breakfast, lunch, or dinner with other students, and I never saw the people that I did have classes with because they lived in the freshman dorms. That was hard at first, but by my second semester, I’d made the transition.

Ups & downs of college life: Depression, anxiety and unexpected opportunities abroad

College has exposed me to so much. I studied abroad in Costa Rica, and next semester I’m going to London. I never thought I would fly on a plane or go to a foreign country! I’ve also struggled with stress, anxiety, and depression, but the free counseling service offered by the Dell Scholars Program helped. And when I was confused about financial aid, I worked with my contacts at the Dell Scholars Program and my financial aid rep to discuss loans and determine the best financial aid options.

I’ll always remember where I came from, but I know a degree will help me break the chains of poverty. I’m still exploring what I will do after I graduate. With the help of career services, I have two internships this summer; I’ll learn the ins and outs of a non-profit, and help build an overnight program for homeless youth.

For me a degree isn’t about the money. It’s about having stability—somewhere to live, my own car and my own life. That’s all I want.

Read more stories from Dell Scholars.

Learn more about the Dell Scholars Program and about our College Preparation and Completion efforts.