For the past several years, John Jackson, a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District, has shared a single bedroom with his mother and three siblings in an apartment. He had to learn to juggle the demands of caring for a younger sibling and the neighbor’s kids while also being captain of the school’s basketball team.
There were times when Jackson’s motivation was put to the test.
“I never really thought about giving up, but at times, I thought, ‘Is it really worth it?’” he admitted.
Some of his doubts were laid to rest on Monday, May 22, when the Foshay Learning Center student joined nearly 200 of his LAUSD peers in a special ceremony for graduating seniors who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity.
The event, at BMO Stadium in Exposition Park, featured speeches by LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, school board President Jackie Goldberg and two students who shared personal stories of the housing insecurity they lived through.
One student speaker, Kevin Sedano, will be graduating on June 9 from James Monroe High School in North Hills with a 4.0 grade average. For years, his family bounced from one home to another, and he would attend a new school each year. That instability took a toll, he said, but he refused to let homelessness define him.
“The weight of my grades and the weight of the responsibilities were a lot. And it was very hard to find hope …but I kept dreaming anyway,” Sedano said, adding that he eventually realized that education was his way out of poverty.
The high school senior plans to attend Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
Monday’s event marked the 10th year that L.A. Unified has held a recognition ceremony for graduating students who experienced homelessness or housing insecurity. The event opened with remarks from Carvalho, who reminded students that he was once homeless himself and that education changed his trajectory.
“Your aspirations are not tied to your current condition,” Carvalho said. “Early on, you encountered obstacles, the likes of which most adults have not had to face. But here you are. … You made it this far, and tomorrow, things will only get better.”
Mayor Bass, who has tackled homelessness as her topmost priority, praised the students for their perseverance.
“Each of you, by completing the work to be here today, has proven not only to me and the entire city, but to yourself, that you have what it takes. You have the power to thrive,” said Bass, who also encouraged the soon-to-graduate students to “change the world.”
Valeria Chavez Perez hopes to make a difference someday as a police psychologist.
The 18-year-old student from Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central will be attending UC Irvine in the fall, where she plans to study psychology, with a minor degree in criminology.
For the past few years, she’s been living in the garage of a relative’s home while her parents remained in Mexico. Perez never considered applying to a four-year university because of the cost, but during her junior year of high school a friend told her she might be eligible for financial aid. Soon, she will be the first person on her mother’s side of the family to attend college.
Being awarded a full-ride scholarship to UC Irvine was a huge burden lifted, said a beaming Perez.
“I was so anxious about my future,” she said. “When I was in ninth grade, I knew I wanted to do something big, but didn’t know how to do it.”
Other students said the experiences they have lived through as someone who’s been homeless or faced housing insecurity have shaped their characters.
John Jackson, the student from Foshay Learning Center, who also celebrated his 18th birthday on Monday, plans to study computer science and business administration at USC. Like Perez, he will be attending college on a full-ride scholarship.
While his life hasn’t been the easiest, Jackson believes the struggles he endured made him more humble and compassionate.
“It helped me as a person,” he said. “It developed ‘John’.”
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