Kristel England - Pathways from Poverty

kristelengland.jpgKristel England is a McNair scholar and a welfare mother who is striving to pull herself out of poverty by working toward a college degree.

She is a passionate advocate for strong childcare policies as she has benefited from them as a single mother on welfare who is attending SSU with eventual plans to earn a Ph.D.

England is also working on her senior thesis, through the McNair Scholar program with Dr. Katz as her mentor, on this issue. Her thesis explores how access to affordable high-quality childcare can be expanded for low-income families, especially those coming off welfare.

How did all this begin? Her story follows.

My mother, from Panama, was the first person in her family to come to the United States; her sister and cousin eventually followed. My mother overcame ethnic and language barriers to earn her masters degree in English.

When my mother was stricken with early-onset Alzheimer's disease at the age of 45, my sister and I were required to care for ourselves, one another, and our mother. At the tender age of 12, I was neither ready nor equipped to handle those pressures.

Instead, I dropped out of the 7th grade and turned to a life of drug and alcohol abuse to self-anesthetize the pain and confusion that accompanied my mother's rapid mental decline. I never found peace, but I no longer had confront the reality that I was becoming an orphan.

Without my mother's guidance and authority in my life, I became pregnant at the age of nineteen. While I had planned to give my baby up for adoption, I could not bear the thought of facing my child eighteen years later, malformed and developmentally disabled, because of my failure to give up drugs and alcohol for 6 months.

I quit everything, I avoided my "friends" and I made every effort to deliver a healthy baby. Two weeks before my daughter was born I decided that this baby was "either going to make me or break me, and I don't break."

An acquaintance helped me to apply for welfare services and subsidized housing. Though I will never get the chance to tell her, that woman not only saved my baby, but she saved me as well.

As she walked me through the process of getting government help, things, life alone with a child, seemed possible.

I delivered, and fell in love with a beautiful 6lb 6oz little girl; there was no looking back, and no desire to return to my old life and habits. My daughter made me a new person; I was finally free to feel love again.

When my daughter was two years old, I enrolled at the local junior college and began taking courses toward a photography certificate; my welfare approved training program. It was a big step for me given that I had never even graduated junior high, and I received my high school diploma via a proficiency exam.

At the college, my CalWorks educational advisor said that he could not allow me to get only a certificate. He saw that I was smart, passionate, and had academic potential above what the menial statutes of the CalWorks program allowed.

He encouraged me to continue my education and apply to a four-year university, with the intention of someday attaining a graduate degree. When he first told me his insights of what my life could be, I thought he was crazy!

I felt that although I could project myself as confident and intelligent, I was really nothing more than a junior high drop out, former drug addict, welfare dependent, single-mother with no real future to offer myself or my child.

Coming to Sonoma State University opened my eyes to many of the injustices that had taken place in my life, that I had shamed myself with as personal failures. My courses in Women and Gender Studies helped me to understand that my experiences were not necessarily individual failures for which I must solely burden the guilt and responsibility for my participation.

My experiences, my choices, and random life events all took place within the contexts of the society where I grew up. My desire to improve my life circumstances was constrained by the societal structures within which I found myself.

This was not to say that I bore no responsibility, but rather responsibility within context: What decisions would many 12 year olds make if they suddenly found themselves without parental figures, acting as an adult, with the autonomy to make any choice they wanted, but without the guidance or wisdom that one gains only by experience?

Had I made rotten choices? Of course, I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 19; when I began to lose my mother, I was in the traditional age ranges of making bad choices, like all normal teenagers, but I did not have the benefit of parental restraints that keep most people from committing offenses against themselves as I had done.

While these new understandings of how my mother's illness had shaped my life within specific contexts was liberating, this new found redemption exists in the context of the life and academic skills I forewent in my youth.

It is now only in adulthood that I have had consider the path I want my life to take. Imagine that when you were little you never really thought about what you wanted to be when you grew up, and then as an adult, you sit across from someone's desk at a county welfare office and they tell you that you must decide: now.

I have taken the EXTENDED academic route completing two Associates degrees (one in Photography, one in Letters, Arts, and Sciences), one certificate (in Digital Photographic Imaging), and all the prerequisites for the nursing program in four years.

I have spent the additional past four years majoring in bio-chem, Human Development, and now Women's and Gender Studies with a minor in Political Science. My college experience has been slow egress towards self-discovery, and soon I hope, self-sufficiency; though, if it were not for access to a college education I'm not sure it would have been possible for me to obtain either.

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