Making it Through College without a Place to Call Home

by Cameron Dering

Karina Lopez walks through the Library Café with long, deliberate strides, head held high and an air of confidence about her. She finds some friends to mingle with and starts chatting and laughing. In dark-wash jeans, trendy boots and a peacoat, with a tote slung over her shoulder and iPhone in hand, anyone passing by this 21-year-old senior would stereotype her as the typical middle-class, suburban college student that makes up the majority of the demographic at The College of New Jersey. No one would suspect that when school is not in session, she struggles with homelessness.

Lopez spent her childhood in Manhattan never knowing any reality other than that of her own dysfunctional family. Her Dominican father was barely around, and when he was, he was abusive. Her Puerto Rican mother didn’t speak a lick of English, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia as a result of long-term abuse.

Lopez wound up in foster care by the time she was 11, taken away from her abusive father by New York’s Administration for Children Services (ACS) after dance instructors reported excessive cuts and bruises—her battered body exposed by her camouflage dance costume— to police.

“At first, they tossed me within my family, but my entire family is dysfunctional,” says Lopez, who was sent to live with various aunts, uncles and cousins, none of which could provide for her. “At age 13, I went into real foster care, living with strangers, friends of friends, friends of family—whoever would take me in for a week or a month.”

She’s lived in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, shifted from home to home so often she doesn’t remember how many times she’s moved.

“For a long time I used to make a joke with my aunt, ‘I’m a briefcase, just put me in a corner,’” says Lopez. This joke was supposed to be funny, but Lopez says, “Over time, that’s how I used to think of myself. Disposable.” Between houses, she found herself homeless at many points in her life. “I lived in group homes and shelters,” says Lopez. “It sucked. It really sucked.”

The struggle to keep homelessness from defining her life ate away a great deal of time and effort. “It’s like you lose your dignity because you need so much you can’t do for yourself, you have to ask, beg, and plead,” says Lopez.

But Lopez had a vision: herself at twenty-eight with a college degree, successful career and home of her own. This dream would define the way she lived her life, shaping every thought, decision and action to reach this ultimate goal.

“I wasn’t willing to find a boyfriend to depend on, get pregnant, get married,” says Lopez. “I knew I had to continue pursuing my education because I wanted to be self-sufficient. I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else.”

All the years Lopez spent caring for herself, forced to grow up too quickly when she should have been enjoying childhood, were eventually rewarded when she was moved into the foster home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the summer before her seventeenth birthday.

“I kind of found some family structure there and sense of longevity,” says Lopez. Her new foster mother had five full-grown children of her own between the ages of eight and 18 to care for when Lopez arrived. “They are my sisters. I’d do anything for them. If they wanted my left kidney, they could have it,” Lopez says.

The foster mother, who Lopez now refers to as Mom, would scold her for trying to make her own doctor appointments. “She would be like, ‘what’s wrong with you, that’s my job!’” says Lopez. “It took a really long time to adjust to the idea of having someone take care of me. A really long time.”

By the time Lopez arrived, she was only there for her senior year of high school, “but she helped me a lot in that year,” says Lopez. “She helped me be a kid for all the years I wasn’t able to be a kid, and I really appreciate that.”

With the help of a caseworker from an agency that assisted foster children with college applications, Lopez was able to begin working on the next chapter of her life. Despite all of the hardships she faced, Lopez made sure to study hard and get good grades throughout her high school years, never losing sight of her dream to graduate from college and make something of her life. All her hard work paid off when she was accepted to The College of New Jersey, a highly selective and renowned undergraduate institution. She was also selected to be one of TCNJ’s Bonner Scholars, receiving a generous scholarship in return for community service through the College’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

But just when Lopez’s life seemed to find some sense of stability, a disagreement between Lopez and her foster mother over adoption had her back in a shelter the summer before she started college.

Now that she was eighteen, however, she was no longer placed in foster homes and often had to rely on herself to find a place to stay, which meant staying in shelters— adult shelters. Sometimes, this meant sharing sleeping quarters with some very dangerous people. Lopez recalls one night when she was in a room with four beds and found out that her three roommates had just been released from jail. They assumed that Lopez didn’t speak English, and proceeded to talk about “some really sick stuff.” “I was like wow, I’m not sleeping here, this is unsafe,” says Lopez. “I don’t care how much street smarts I have, I’m going to sleep at the park. And I went and slept at the park, cause I just felt safer.”

Lopez has found herself in shelters— a week here, a night there— multiple times since that summer. She has since reconciled with her foster mother, whom she still considers family, and spends holidays with her “mom” and her “sisters,” but no longer lives with them. Although struggling with homelessness herself, Lopez now gives her own volunteer time to help the homeless in the Trenton area. As a Bonner Scholar at TCNJ, she has given back to the local homeless community at sites such as the Rescue Mission and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and has also gone to New Orleans to help the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

“Bonner humbled me,” says Lopez. “I remember freshman year I walked with a vengeance against the world because my life was really shitty, then I went to New Orleans and was like ‘oh wow, I can’t complain.’”

Volunteering with the Bonner center has also helped Lopez learn to appreciate the natural gifts and talents life has blessed her with. “When I go to tutor someone, I realize I’m smart. For whatever reason, I don’t know why, I was born with the ability to be good in school and I can pick up things pretty quickly,” says Lopez. “Sometimes, when I wasn’t happy with my life, I’d go to Hedgepeth-Williams [Elementary School] and tutor some kid and try to make his day a little better, but that kid did more for me than I did for him.”

And Lopez was certainly excelling in school herself, juggling a double major in biopsychology and philosophy with the 300 hours of community service demanded of every Bonner Scholar, as well as membership in other student organizations such as Women in Learning and Leadership.

While Lopez had a lot going for her at school, her struggles with homelessness became too much to bear. “It took a big toll on my person,” she explains. “It’s not enough to have all these successes, because it still boggles you emotionally and can mess up how you view the world and process things and interact with other people.”

After taking stock of her life, Lopez found she needed a new direction and decided to join the army. “I felt like I needed to be recalibrated as a person, and the only way to do that was to start with a blank slate, and the army could do that for me,” she says.

She took last semester off to go through basic training in Missouri, which she renamed “Misery.” Despite the physical and mental hardships of basic training, the army was able to provide Lopez with the solace she sought. She was able to grow to love herself and appreciate her life for what it was. “It really helped me know myself,” says Lopez. I mean, I knew that my life wasn’t that great, but after living in the military and that lifestyle, I had a huge appreciation for what I did have in my life and it made me look at what I have.”

Lopez also gained a newfound appreciation for her status as an American citizen. “Even with my history, my relationships with my crazy, loopy family, and my several homeless episodes,” Lopez says, “I’m still free and I have the liberty to do with my life as I choose.”

“I think the army changed her a lot,” says Erica Hernandez, Lopez’s girlfriend of five years. “It taught her how to develop other skills, to realize how strong she is mentally. Now, she can handle anything.”

Despite everything that Lopez has gone through, she’s still just a college student who enjoys typical college life. Her favorite movie is Titanic and she listens to Alicia Keys on her iPod. She likes to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” and “True Blood” and hang out with friends in the dining hall. She stresses over papers and exams just like any other college student.

Lopez certainly doesn’t let her situation stifle her ambition. After college, she hopes to go to law school to become a successful human rights lawyer.

“I just know what it feels like to be stripped of my rights and underrepresented,” Lopez says. “If I can help a single person not ever feel like that, I’ll be happy.”

Lopez is currently in her fourth year of college, but because of her double major and the classes she missed when she took a semester off for basic training, she will be graduating in May of 2012. It’s been a difficult journey to this point, but Lopez continues to defy the odds each and every day.

“I just had a vision, and that’s really all you need,” says Lopez. “A vision prepares you and enables you to take certain steps and provisions to make yourself who you want to be.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wall newspaper.