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Shaunea Brown

Recent graduate, City Colleges of Chicago

Chicago, IL

I realized that breaking the cycle could start with me becoming the first woman in my family to earn a college degree.

One of my biggest fears was going back to college. The word “college” didn’t exist in my family. In high school, while some students met with counselors to talk about colleges and studied for the SATs, I worried about where I would live and how I would support myself. My home environment put me in a mode of survival versus planning for my future. I was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet while raising three children. My father spent most of my adolescent life in prison. I was uprooted from one home to the next 21 times and attended 15 different schools. Several times, I was forced to live with other families spanning through my elementary, middle, and high school years.

I enrolled at a community college at age 18 because a friend’s mom encouraged me to go with them, but quickly dropped out because I needed to focus my attention on helping my family pay bills. Additionally, I didn’t believe that someone like me could succeed in college.

Instead, I worked various jobs to try and create basic stability for myself; something I never knew anything about during childhood. While doing my best and always recognized as a top performer, I was never able to further my career because I lacked a college degree and even more so, I lacked self-confidence. During those 12 years, I felt regret from not attending college, but my fear of failure kept holding me back.

At age 29, I found myself in Chicago after relocating from the Pacific Northwest with my boyfriend, now fiancé. While in Chicago, I continued struggling to find my place in life. Finally as I approached 30, I realized I needed to make a significant change. For years, I watched my family struggle to make a change for a better life. My father battled substance abuse and, sadly, it led to him passing away from a drug overdose. The hardships that my family and I had experienced began to fuel me to better myself and my future, pushing me to break the family cycle. I realized that breaking that cycle could start with me becoming the first woman in my family to earn a college degree.

Although I was afraid, I chose to overcome my fear of failure. I enrolled at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. This time, I was not going to let fear stand in my way. Over the course of two years, I focused on gaining small victories one day, one class, and one semester at a time. As my hard work paid off, my confidence grew. I successfully graduated with my Associate in Arts degree as the 2014 valedictorian. I was also successful in landing a summer internship with a top public accounting firm.

My journey to college did not start right out of high school, but I learned that life is not a race and there are many paths to success.  I plan to take the lessons that I have learned over the past two years with me as I go on to complete my Bachelor’s degree. I learned that it is never too late or too far out of reach to pursue ones’ dreams. I am finally pursuing my dream today and could not be more proud.