By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

EC Hope GraduationGownIn her late teens, Hope C. recalls that she felt like a “lost soul.” She had been at a Texas Youth Commission facility where she’d earned her GED and teachers had praised her academic abilities. Yet spending several of her formative years in a youth lock-up left her feeling unprepared for life in the wider world.

When she got back home at age 17, she was buffeted by the same family turmoil and estrangements that had played a role in her commitment to TYC. Lacking job training and dependent on others, she wound up around adults who were not good role models, she said.   

“I didn’t have the skillset to assess who was good people and who was not good people,” she said. “I was sometimes around people that would hurt me.”

It took many years and significant personal struggle to change all that. But today, Hope’s life is nothing like that bleak time. At 37, she’s built unwavering self-confidence and set high goals. In early May, she fulfilled a big one, graduating from the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance with a concentration in Global Energy Management and minors in Risk Management and Geoscience.

She’ll add that sheepskin to an associate degree for paralegal work from Houston Community College, which she completed last December.  

“It’s a bittersweet moment. I say that because it’s been many challenges along the way and overcoming them to get to this point,” Hope said, noting that she’s a first-generation graduate. (Hope is a pseudonym to protect her confidentiality as a formerly incarcerated youth.)

She credits her steady faith for sustaining her in college. “God is with me and I know God heard my cries, my heart. He knew I really wanted this, I wanted stability, and he finally gave it to me…with him I made it to the finish line.”

Now a mother of three young children, Hope’s college journey had fits and starts. In her 20s, she went to school to become a pharmacy assistant, but discovered the work wasn’t for her. By the time she knew the academic direction she wanted to take, she was a young mother. She wove classes around her family life and busy schedule, at one point delivering a child just in time for winter semester vacation, a lucky break of timing that gave her several weeks of unofficial maternity leave with her newborn.

Her recent professors say she stood out as an especially determined student with a sharp intellect.

“She’s very diligent, very responsible. Bright and inquisitive,” said Executive Professor James Hughes at the C.T. Bauer College of Business at UH. Hope stood out in his classes, he said, because she had to manage family life while going to school, at first with two and now three young children. While he often sees students who are a bit older than the traditional college age, it’s not often they’ve got to juggle so much.

“I’m gob-smacked how well she manages things,” Hughes said. “It brings me joy to see someone like this, what she’s been able to accomplish.”

Dr. Doug Erwig, director of the UH Energy Leaders, Division of Energy at the University of Houston, said he appreciated Hope’s creative thinking and energetic participation in several projects around new energy development.

“She’s not a traditional student, though I’m not sure what that is exactly,” Dr. Erwig said. “She is a person of bright optimism, muscular will, hard-working, humble, effective – just a real delight to work with.”

While Hope found spiritual support in her faith and moral support from those who’ve recognized her talent, finances were a different matter. That’s where she got some help from TJJD’s John C. Wende Trust Fund, which helps former TJJD/TYC youth with their education.

During her final push to get her degree in the early COVID years, she discovered that as a former TYC youth she could qualify for a TJJD trust fund scholarship.

“I was talking to a success coach at U. of H., she said, ‘you qualify for certain waivers,’ and I didn’t know about that,” Hope said. That prompted her to make a renewed search for college financial aid, which led her to the trust funds. She met the requirements as a former youth who’d been without parental support. She completed the required essay and was awarded assistance for tuition and housing from the trust for two and a half years.

Recalling her years at TYC, Hope says she knew as a teen that she had a knack for academics. “A teacher told me I was really good with writing. And I had high scores on my GED,” she said. At the Brownwood campus she had felt protected and able to pursue her classes. Certain staff members watched out for her because they knew she’d been bullied and abused as a child, she said. In hindsight, she added, those correctional staff apparently recognized that the behaviors that had led to her commitment sprang from her traumatic background.

Despite her academic growth in high school at TYC, Hope says that as a young adult she grappled with self-worth issues and how to interact in the world as an adult. “They teach you not to commit crimes, but not the life skills. So, I had to learn to advocate for myself,” she said.

Her then-husband (they were later divorced) helped her get past much of her self-doubt, because he believed she could succeed. But a lot of the journey was trial and error, she said.

Today, she has developed a more pragmatic view of her past. She believes that her time at TYC stopped her from heading down a more destructive path that likely would have led to prison.

“I have moved on from the painful parts but if anyone was in my situation, it wouldn’t be 100 percent complete. What I have done is say ‘don’t look back’ . . . look at all the good that came. That’s why I say I’m glad I went to TYC. God wanted me to be safe. God didn't want me to be put in any more situations where I am abused."

Her next step will be to pursue a master’s degree, which she feels she needs to be competitive in the job market as an “older” entry-level candidate. She wants to become a risk manager or sustainability officer for an energy firm, working on the sustainable energy that will be needed to maintain a healthy planet and future generations, including her own children.

She’s already worked with NASA and Evolve Houston on energy solutions projects. One study involved exploring attitudes toward EV vehicles and how to alleviate the range and price anxieties that deter adoption of these energy-saving technologies.

Her new outlook has vanquished the girl inside who once felt so lost. As an educated person who’s made her own way in life, she no longer has to “mask behind not having life skills.”

“It’s taken me a little bit longer to graduate. But I’m happy. I believe in God and if he feels like this was the best time for me to finish, I’m ok with that,” she said.

“Now I can finally say I’m not a failure. Thanks to three supports, God, the trust fund, and the faculty at University of Houston and Houston Community College for supporting me to my success."