Here's What Got This Oakland Teen Through 14 Years In Foster Care

Photographed By Jacki Huntington.
In our series A Class Of Their Own, Refinery29 is following five college freshwomen from across the country as they define their identities and relationships.
As told to Hayley MacMillen.
I go by Shay. I am a 19-year-old queer woman of color and a freshman at Mills College. The background of my life revolves around being in foster care since the age of two. I went through that system, which is not a lovely system, and ended up in about 48 different foster homes, about 12 different group homes, and about 23 different schools. Freshman year of high school alone, I moved like eight times, and so my life hasn’t really had a lot of stability. Part of what I’m looking for in college is to get myself a community and live somewhere safe; I have yet to experience that. I’m looking for stability. I’m hoping not to transfer. I really hope that Mills College works out.

I got into foster care when I was two years old, with my sister, who is a little older than me. My mom wasn’t able to keep us. She’s not really meant to be a caregiver for anyone. My sister and I were placed into the same foster homes until I was five, but then she was adopted and I was not. The family that adopted her decided to cut ties, so I was unable to speak to or see her until she turned 18. About nine months ago, I found her on Facebook. We are both different people now, so our "relationship" is pretty much superficial and nonexistent.

I found my mother about nine months or so ago, on Facebook too. I met her once since then, and she is very draining, negative, abusive. I have no time for her. Zero relations.

Part of what I’m looking for in college is to get myself a community and live somewhere safe — I have yet to experience that.

Even though throughout my high school years I never got lower than a B (I had all As and Bs and I was the valedictorian of my graduating class at Sojourner Truth Independent Study), I wasn’t doing as well as I could after I started drinking. When I was 16, my foster parent at the time lost her license, and so from there I moved into my own apartment. That’s when I started having issues with alcohol. I was at a difficult point in my life, and it seemed like the only outlet. All my life, I was like “I’m going to graduate high school; I’m going to go to college,” and that’s the only thing that’s really kept me afloat. Since alcohol was really getting in the way of me doing that, it was time to find a solution. I tried to kick it about two to three times. Then, I stopped when I was 18.
Everything that really kept me going was my end goal to go to college. It was the only way I wasn't going to become a statistic.

Yall better watch out! I'm making my way to the top, by the time I'm through the whole world will know my name.

A photo posted by Shantell M House (@shayster_) on

At Mills, my main priority is to graduate and handle my responsibilities, and so I’ve been accepting that throughout this process, and I’m staying focused without letting other people distract me from my goal. I actually found out that you can make your own major here and get your master’s in five years, so I’m meeting with a few of my advisers to figure out what courses I need. I'll take sociology, public policy. When I get my master’s, I’ll be doing it in Business Administration — I aspire to create an organization to help foster youth navigate the system. Right now, I’m taking environmental science, computer science, psychology, “Fundamentals of Grammar,” “The Technique and Mystery of Singing,” and swimming. I don’t know why I decided to take six classes in my first semester! I’m also in the poetry club, the Black Women's Collective, and CAN TAY, a foster-youth club that two other kids and I made.

I tend to hang out with upperclassmen a lot. The freshies I hang out with are super down-to-earth and enjoyable to be around, though just a handful. I’m 19 right now; in two months, I’ll be 20. I think maturity-wise, I had to grow up super fast. I kind of connect with upperclassmen on a better level.

At the beginning of the year, I made a lot of connections that were pretty strong, but then after that, when people started smoking weed and drinking, I automatically felt a disconnect. After you connect with someone when they’re sober, you can’t really connect on the same level when they’re drunk, because they're not on the same level. Being sober here has been kind of difficult in that sense. But I’ve been there, done that with drinking. I don’t really want to relive that life again. To relax, I go out to eat with friends (a lot), go on hikes, go to the beach, listen to music, write poetry, and talk, talk, talk.

Currently, I live in a residential hall. Thank god at Mills, we have the option of having a single dorm, so I have a single dorm, and I have a balcony. I’m around people all day; we eat together, we pretty much have to share the bathroom together, we go to class together. I need Shay time at the end of the day, and so I’m glad that I have that. Plus, I sleep outside on my balcony!


A photo posted by Shantell M House (@shayster_) on

That is my friend Lisa, and we were at a get-together for Thanksgiving with a few friends of ours. She is an amazing woman.

I identify as lesbian. From a very young age, I realized I am. Being a lesbian here at Mills College is, like, the norm. I don't particularly have any strong feelings about it — after all, Mills is known as the queer school. I feel comfortable here. During high school, I wouldn’t necessarily say I got into anything super-serious, maybe like eight months was my most serious relationship. Over time, that relationship became something I didn’t really want to be a part of, because the woman I was dating was very negative. I was like, Yeah, you’re cool to have sex with, but not really personality-wise. I already have a lot going on, and the last thing I need is negative energy. The point of a relationship is to build up on each other, not bring each other down; if that’s your relationship, you might as well be single.

The point of a relationship is to build up on each other, not bring each other down; if that’s your relationship, you might as well be single.

People do have a lot of hookups in college. That’s not my style. There are too many diseases out there; it needs to be official or whatnot. I’ll be interested in dating, maybe, next semester when I’m not as busy. It’s very hard to navigate that, and I’m going to handle my business first, although there are a few people I have my eye on. I’m not going to say that I don’t!

I take a lot of meds — antidepressants, ADHD meds. I can’t sleep at night, so I have sleeping medicine, and stuff like that. It’s always been a problem; my attention is all over the place. Over the years, I’ve been learning how to cope better, so I can be focused for a certain amount of time, but after that, I need to have a break. I was going to run for president, but I’m just like, that’s too much. I’ll do that next year.

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