A Young Woman Grabs the Golden Ticket To College and a Better Future

Photograph of Jessica McCormick.Jessica McCormick never doubted she was going to college.

Not when she ran away from a violent home the summer before her senior year. Not when she bounced among the houses of friends and extended family. Not when, more than once, she wound up living, for several weeks, on the streets of her hometown, Grand Rapids, MI.

Despite everything, McCormick got good grades, worked in her high school’s main office, sent off her college application and graduated. In June 2010, she received an acceptance letter from Aquinas College, a liberal arts school in Grand Rapids. And she realized she couldn’t afford to go.

On average, higher education boosts people’s lifetime earnings compared to having a high school-level diploma or less. For unaccompanied youth like McCormick, who have no fixed residence or family support, “It’s the door out of not being able to get a job, not being able to support yourself,” she says—in other words, a first step toward economic independence, a meaningful career and overall self-sufficiency.  

McCormick’s social workers at Arbor Circle, a Family and Youth Services Bureau-funded runaway and homeless youth program, jumped in to help.

“They were basically saying, ‘That’s the golden ticket in your hand,’” McCormick says. “’Don’t throw it out.’” Arbor staff worked with the college’s administrators, got McCormick financial aid, and arranged for her to start living on campus even before the semester started.

Now 20 years old and a junior majoring in sociology and community leadership, McCormick has started an organization called Hope House, which will support unaccompanied youth at her college by offering life-skills training, tutoring, mentoring, and other services and by acting as a liaison to the college’s administration. To build her experience in the social services field, last summer she interned with the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness.

“In my ideal world,” she says, “every homeless youth would have a person or family member who would encourage them and help them find their golden ticket.”