Losing Both My Parents Didn’t Stop Me From Obtaining A College Education

Courtesy of Cara Claflin
Welcome to the inaugural class of '29. We've selected 29 graduating college seniors, entering the "real" world in 2018, to write about the state of their lives. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, stressors, failures, and successes as they leave school behind? We will be releasing new entries on a daily basis. If you would like yours to be considered, please email classof29@refinery29.com.
Most of my classmates view college graduation as the next step to becoming a fully independent adult. But the truth is, I've felt this way for years. I've already experienced spending months searching for an apartment, living on my own and managing a budget. There is no childhood bedroom for me to move back to if I can't find a job after college. My mother died during my junior year of high school, and my father died when I was a sophomore in college. Losing my aunt a month after my father died made an already hard time even more difficult.
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Throughout these losses, my education has been the one constant in my life, and it has given me the strength to persevere. Neither of my parents obtained a college education, but they instilled in me a love of learning at an early age. Once I made it to middle school, I realized a college degree could give me the best future possible. I attended a high school on the other side of town that offered more advanced classes, volunteered in my neighborhood and joined multiple student groups to increase my chances of getting in.
After spending my freshman year at a local private school with a full-tuition scholarship, I transferred to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities to increase my opportunities and allow me to live at home. Without having the courage to transfer, I would have missed out on living with my dad during the last year of his life, designing my own major and joining an amazing multicultural sorority. This experience taught me there isn’t one right way to obtain a college education. I always trusted myself to make the best decisions for me and avoided comparing my journey to other students. I intend to keep the same open mindset as I enter the workforce.
It is easy to focus only on the obstacles in life, but I won’t let that overshadow how fortunate I am. My education wouldn't have been possible without the many people who thoughtfully advised me and the organizations that provided me with generous scholarships. I am pursuing a career in public policy because I want all young people to have access to a college education regardless of their life circumstances. Learning to advocate for myself in systems that are not built for low-income and first-generation students of color has inspired me to be an advocate for others.
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When I first found out my commencement ceremony would be held on Mother's Day, I was disappointed. I knew the day would be hard enough without another reminder of my loss. But sitting in an arena full of my fellow grads, I began to feel at ease as the student and alumnus speakers both spoke of the loss of a parent and the impact it had on them. I realized I wasn’t alone in my experience. My peers and I may have overcome different obstacles, but we should all be proud of the hard work we've done to finish college. Being surrounded by my sorority sisters after the ceremony reminded me of the family I have been able to create for myself because of my college education.
I feel hopeful when I think about the future. I’m sure there will be more obstacles that make me feel like giving up. But I also believe that there will be opportunities so great I can’t even imagine them until they’re offered to me.
Cara Claflin recently graduated with a Bachelor of Individualized Studies in mass communication, political science, and African American and African studies from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. After gaining a few years of work experience, she plans to obtain a Master of Public Policy.
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