At Swarthmore, we sometimes take our elite, intellectual college experience for granted, yet there are people who would do anything for a chance to take even a single class of higher education. Here’s a story about a woman I met this summer who moved mountains to get back to school, which may make you think twice the next time you complain about Sharples or the state of bathrooms in Willets.
On a Tuesday afternoon in June, 55-year-old Sheila White found herself the 115th person in a line of prospective college students waiting to register for University of the District of Columbia’s fall term. White remembers the waiting time fondly, unbothered by the line’s length. She would have been willing to wait all day if necessary, the task’s tedium incapable of diluting her excitement at taking a monumental step towards a dream that had been put off for too long.
White, a D.C. native, has always possessed a knack for learning and an inclination to tackle any academic challenge. Although she was forced to drop out of school in ninth grade to raise her first child, she continuously stressed to her children the importance of an education, ensured that all of them completed high school on time, and worked as a teaching aid and substitute teacher at Fletcher-Johnson Middle School for over 10 years.
Still, White knew from the moment she left school that she would find a way to return.
“I was always going to go back,” she declared. “It was instilled in me. I made it so important to my kids — I preached it so much — so there was never a question. As long as I had breath in my body, I was going back!”
At the age of 49, White enrolled in the External Diploma Program at Ballou STAY High School. Ecstatic to be back at school, she threw herself into her work, and after completing her requirements in just three months, on a hot D.C. summer night, she stood in a gold cap and gown and proudly collected her high school diploma.
White never intended to stop there, and her love for learning prompted her to pursue plans for further education at the collegiate level. However, these plans were derailed three years ago when a series of devastating events including being robbed, a flood in her apartment, and an illness landed her on the streets.
“I would stay up all night and watch the sun come up,” White remembered. “Then I would go to a museum and sit. First I was angry about my situation. Then something told me I needed to fight back and do what I needed to do for me. I had that time to think what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and so I decided to go to the shelter.”
At the shelter, White was initially intrigued when she found out they had a daily art class. Seeing the class as an opportunity to learn, she decided to attend; however, she was disappointed to find it was nothing more than coloring books.
“It’s not for me,” White recalled thinking. “I’m better than this. It’s not the class I need.”
After two years at the shelter and prospects of her continued education slipping away, White stumbled upon the 13th and G Street location of Street Sense. Street Sense is a media center that produces a newspaper about issues surrounding D.C.’s homeless population that is sold by homeless vendors. Street Sense also provides social work aid as well as workshops in various forms of media including poetry, film, and journalism to the vendors. Finding Street Sense was a happy accident that has allowed Ms. White to return to the classroom, expand her intellectual horizons, and discover a passion for filming.
Through Street Sense, White has also become involved with DCTV, DC’s only television station devoted exclusively to local programming with a focus on empowering citizens to tell their own stories. It was there where White found her love for the camera. When Street Sense offered to pay for a 16-week class at the station, she jumped at the opportunity and graduated from the program with certifications in videography, editing, and production.
“I loved learning how to edit the film, interview people, and do the lighting,” she exclaimed. “I’m always telling my story, which I don’t mind telling, but my best thing is being behind the camera. I like to zoom in on people and let them tell their stories. That led me to go sign up at UDC because then I knew I wanted to go to college for media. With my first year, I’ll have to take basic English and stuff like that, but once I’m done with the basic classes, I want to transfer to American University or Trinity to study liberal arts and communications.”
With regards to her post-grad plans, White intends to come full-circle.
“Once I get my degree, I think I would like to do my internship here at Street Sense. I love the work they do, and I want to go behind the camera and video them,” White declared.
As she spoke to me about her then-impending college experience, her smile was radiant and her eyes were sparkling with anticipation as she glanced every few minutes at her phone, waiting for a text from her registration advisor about her fall schedule.
“I’m a freshman,” she repeatedly exclaimed, incapable of uttering those words without a grin spreading instantly across her face. “I’m a freshman. Once I got my high school diploma, I thought, this ain’t enough. Once I got that degree, I knew I wanted another one.”
Currently beginning her second semester at UDC, White reports that Firebird life is absolutely the one for her, gushing about her classes, her successes, and the school spirit at basketball games. It sounds like she is well on her way to achieving her next cap and gown.
Higher education is a privilege afforded to us at Swarthmore, which, for many of us, was and is our dream school, by a number of different factors: our families, our high schools, and various forms of financial aid. The benefits are innumerable, including brilliant professors, state-of-the-art labs, a beautiful campus, and access to avenues that will open doors for all of us in the future. Sometimes, we find ourselves looking down on other schools from our elite, intellectual perch without realizing how some people had to fight tooth and nail to make even community college a reality. For many, attending a place like UDC is a seemingly unattainable dream and its achievement should be categorized as nothing short of outstanding.