BY: ELIZABETH ORTIZ
I went into the foster care system just before my 13th birthday. I was used to moving around and had already lived in five states, and changed schools seven times before I entered the system. But this didn’t make it easier when I had a total of six housing changes during the five years I spent in the system. Because of the national shortage of foster homes, I was frequently moved into different group homes. As I aged and my needs evolved, I found myself outgrowing programs that were not designed to accommodate youth for much longer than a year at a time. Despite the uncertainty, I tried to stay focused on school because it provided a path to independence and a sense of consistency amidst the instability.
I had to balance the demands of school with the institutionalized care settings I was living in. Sometimes, that meant studying under my blankets at night with a flashlight to ensure I didn’t get into trouble for working on homework after “lights-out.” I remember listening for footsteps as staff members did their rounds. Unfortunately, my situation was surprisingly common because of conflicting priorities and obligations that foster youth have to manage, such as therapeutic groups after school. I knew I needed to study – I wanted to help other kids like me. As I got older, I became more active in school and other academic activities. I was 17 years old when Pivotal invited me to a workshop on resources for foster youth in college. We learned about college applications, scholarships, and responded to prompts with coaches. But I struggled to fully take advantage of these opportunities. It felt harder to focus as graduation and emancipation drew closer. I was often running away and missing school, and eventually dropped out during my senior year. After almost 5 years living in group homes, it hit me that I was truly on my own.
Luckily, I finished high school and earned my diploma with enough time to start college in the fall. As soon as I aged out of the system, I faced housing shortages and began to struggle with school, and when I was 19, I became pregnant with my kiddo. Now, it wasn’t just me who needed stability, but also another little person. I knew I needed to return to school as soon as possible and remembering the connection I had made at the Pivotal workshop, I contacted them and applied for a scholarship.
Pivotal welcomed me and supported us every step of the way.
My coaches were there during my beautiful, messy transition into parenthood, as I learned about work-life balance, and navigated the healing that came with both. Pivotal never told me how my path should look and was patient when unexpected twists and turns unfolded. They were there through other changes too: when I moved to Oregon, became a single parent, transferred to Portland State University and developed agoraphobia. My agoraphobia, or a fear of situations that could trigger panic attacks, began after the stay-at-home order was announced in the beginning of the pandemic. It was a week before my first term at PSU and definitely not how I had expected it would go. I could not have predicted a time in my life when going to a class, park, store, or anywhere would cause the amount of distress that it did. In-person classes with crowds became out of the question, and even Zoom classes became a consistent trigger. This led to accessibility issues and the need to take fully online courses. One barrier led to the next unfortunately, and because there were additional fees for online courses, it cost an additional $800 for every 12 credits. I was able to stay in school and complete my degree because Pivotal provided an emergency grant to help offset these unexpected expenses.
Pivotal also provided professional development opportunities that were just as essential. I was able to take workshops and learn skills like how to build a personal brand and how to prepare for interviews. They even arranged an internship that specifically supported my goal to bolster youth with experience in the system! I was hired as an intern with the Pivotal Development team helping with grant writing and research. When I felt isolated by my experience, Pivotal staff and coaches like Glenda, Savonna, and Stacy helped me stay focused on my goals.
I recently graduated with my B.S. in Psychology, and I am excited to take a break from school to begin a meaningful career in grant writing. I am also looking forward to spending extra time with my kiddo, Day. Going to college while raising Day was incredibly special. I will always remember a moment last year when we were listening to a recorded lecture and when my teacher introduced themself as nonbinary, Day hugged the computer and said, “I love them!” Day was 7 and has amazed me with their level of interest in my courses. They would listen in and ask questions during lectures, and “help” with quizzes. After the graduation ceremony, they mentioned possibly going to college and said, “Maybe even PSU like you!” My hope is that Day will continue to dream as big or small as they want to and know that they have what they need to make those dreams come true.
Pictured: Elizabeth and her child, Day, at PSU's graduation ceremony
As I continue my journey, I hope that along the way I will be able to tell my story and disrupt archaic child welfare systems in favor of policy that prioritizes my peers’ voices and our intersectional identities. I’m beyond grateful for the compassion and dedication Pivotal has shown me and I plan to pay it forward forever. We couldn’t have done it without a community like this one.