Traci Singleton was in foster care since she was 4, in so many different homes she can’t remember how many. At various times, she stayed with relatives, ran away a lot, then lived in group homes and in transitional living.
But education was always important to her.
“I looked at education as a way out from an early age. I really was my own self-motivator for education,” she said. “Either you comply with your environment or you create a chance for yourself.”
Traci graduated recently from Mount Mary University with a degree in accounting, the top five in her class. But getting to that point, and having a plan as to what to do after graduation, were not easy.
The young woman experienced ups and downs in college, particularly because high school – in all three schools she attended – had been relatively easy. College brought a higher level of expectation and effort, she said, and some classes were really challenging.
“Sophomore year was the hardest for me, the balancing with life, and having to overcome so many daily struggles and to figure out how not to get pulled back into my home environment.’
Traci was still bouncing around with her living situation, and she found herself procrastinating, staying up too late, and seeing her grades go up and down. She considered quitting many times and even dropped out for a semester because she felt she needed a mental break.
But looking at her home life spurred her on, “so I could make different choices on my own.”
The last semester of her junior year, a friend who had been in an Independent Living Services (ILS) program at SaintA told her about the program. Traci entered ILS with an expectation of support and helping her transition successfully into adult life beyond college, she said.
“I wasn’t really reflecting on my experiences, so I was going up and down,” she said. “And personally, I wasn’t open. I think it was either me protecting myself from hearing any judgment, or maybe I was just being stubborn.”
Through the help of the ILS team, Traci said she learned she really needed to act on the goals she was making. Her caseworkers laid out what they could do for her, shared their personal experiences, and connected her with resources.
One resource was Leslie Hayes, SaintA’s chief accountant. Traci had told her caseworkers that she really did not want a job, rather that she wanted to start her own business. Her goal is to create a nonprofit to help disadvantaged individuals with financial literacy.
“I said I don’t want to be under an employer, that I felt when you are under the direction of an employer, they control your time and your money.”
Leslie told Traci it was OK to have a goal of self-employment but that she needed to understand that that was not step no. 1.
“She was shooting questions at me. She was straight to the point, no playing games!” Traci said with a laugh. “But she opened my eyes to that it’s OK for you to want to do that, but you just graduated. You have to be under someone and get experience to be credible.”
Leslie stressed getting additional training in some sort of business specialty and advised Traci to look for networking options and professional groups, to meet people who can help her reach her goal.
“She brought it down to reality, and the reality is, I first need that experience; I need to get my feet wet to see what business is like… She was awesome. She was making her wisdom available to me, and she was very relatable.”
As a result of the help and advice, Traci now has a job doing accounting and bookkeeping for a non-profit, is studying for a CPA program and hopes to go for a master’s program next year.
“I’m gathering the information to be where I really need to be, and that’s an eye opener in itself. I updated my resume, and I didn’t want to do all of that. I’d just graduated. I wanted to just chill!”
Taking these steps show her how much she has grown, Traci said.
“Without ILS, I don’t think I would have grown… Without help and insight, and someone checking on me, I probably would have quit.
“I don’t think I would have been able to advocate for myself and do what I need to do to get to a new stage in life. I would have stayed in the mentality of ‘just graduating.’ ”
And the ILS staff were not making her do things, she said.
“They were offering the things I had to do myself. They allowed me some space to see the benefits and why I needed things personally…Your family and friends can’t give you that if they haven’t experienced it themselves or if they have a give-up type of mentality.”
At one point, when Traci was having a hard time at school, family told her she was overworking herself and advised her to take time off from school. Luckily, her drive to graduate won out.
In the end, it came down to the advice from ILS that got her through and put her on a solid path for the future, she said.
“My environment growing up was so haunted… but the whole ILS team worked together. They were gentle, genuine and caring advocates.”
Interested in learning more about Independent Living Services? Visit the ILS program page.