ackie Davis (’15) and Krystal Hamilton (’13) — along with Brenda Sweeten, UNT clinical associate professor of social work — are the original founders of Persevere Until Success Happens (PUSH). In fact, they were so involved in the program, the duo even came up with the group’s inspiring name.
“It’s about peers who are like you — what can we take from one another, and what can we give to one another?” Davis says. “We thought, ‘Let’s get behind each other and push each other along the way.’”
Xavier Hicks (’14) joined the organization early on, and together, all three helped each other overcome obstacles and make the world a better place for kids who, like them, grew up in foster care.
Here, they talk about their own college journeys, the challenges foster care alums face when entering higher education, and how they hope to inspire the next generation of college graduates.
When did you know you wanted to go to college?
Hamilton: I always excelled at school — it was the one thing I had going on that I was always really good at it. It wasn’t a conversation that needed to be had. I knew I would go to college.
Hicks: The only reason I went to college is because someone told me that I couldn’t go. I was working at Target and one of my co-workers asked, ‘What do you plan to do with your life?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe go to college.’ And she laughed. From that point on, I was like, ‘I’m going to prove her wrong.’ I’ve always been a competitive person — if you tell me I can’t climb a wall, I’m going to spend two hours trying to do it.
Davis: I knew since high school that I wanted to go to a university, but I didn’t think it was an option for someone like me. I wanted to do something — I always had this urge to defy the odds because I had been told that I was not capable, I was not worthy, I could not amount to any kind of success. So I think whenever you hear those messages, it makes you want to do it more. But there’s always a gap between that want and actually getting there. I ended up earning an associate degree from Tarrant County College. My best friend wanted to go to UNT, and he pushed me to go. He said, ‘Are you going to come with me or not?’
All three of you received a bachelor’s degree in social work from UNT. How did you decide to pursue that field?
Hicks: I really just fell into it. Initially when I went off to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I changed my major two or three times. I ended up taking a class in child development and that’s how I met Brenda. We started talking, and then I met Jackie — he was very involved in the social work program and told me about it. I realized a lot of what social workers do connected with what I went through in my past.
Davis: I started out as a psychology major — I wanted to be an art therapist. Going into my second semester, I met a friend who was interested in my story. She read an essay I wrote when I was in junior college about how as a kid I didn’t want to be adopted, and she said, ‘You need to meet Brenda.’ I started to learn more about social work as I worked with Brenda to start PUSH. My idea about social work was very different than what it actually is. I thought it had to do with taking people’s kids away — that’s what foster kids tend to associate social work with. I had friends who had been in foster care who also were part of the social work program, and they really educated me on what it was about. I thought, ‘I need to take this route.’
Hamilton: I grew up in the foster care system almost my entire life. When you’re in foster care, you don’t necessarily have someone you can relate to in a positive way. I chose social work because I truly enjoy helping others. I felt that God didn't allow me to go through what I did for no reason. I possessed the strength and resilience to get through so many barriers in my life growing up, and a lot of people cannot defy the odds in the same way. I wanted to use my experiences to not only continue to help myself thrive but to also help others. Through social work, and through PUSH, I was able to motivate others and do good as a whole community.
Do your own past experiences help you connect with the children you’re trying to help?
Davis: While I was pursuing my degree at UNT, I also was speaking at PUSH events and sharing my story. I was hired at Cumberland Presbyterian Children’s Home, and it was a big deal to be able to connect with those kids — and to create a bridge between the kids and the staff so they could understand each other. I could relate to both sides. I would have a conversation with the kids and say, ‘You need to open up to the staff’ or encourage them to go to therapy. For them to see a foster care alum being successful and going to college, that was big. I stayed with the kids anywhere from eight to16 hours per day. I took them to school, cooked for them, helped them handle meltdowns. You learn a lot about them, and they learn a lot about you.
Hicks: Definitely — a huge part of my job is telling kids the things that I wish people had told me growing up, like that I could go to college and how to get there. It’s easy to identify the kids who are in foster care. They tend to be closed off, they’re at a crossroads. When I talk to a kid, I’m not trying to change their life right now — I’m just trying to plant that seed so that maybe when they turn 20 or 21, they remember that guy who told them they could make something of themselves and that maybe what he said was true.
Hamilton: Oftentimes, when kids leave foster care, they’re just on their own. I equated my experience to leaving prison. I didn’t get the emotional support I needed growing up, and I wasn’t prepared for adulthood in the way that I should have been. I made it work, but a lot of people aren’t able to make it work. It’s important to have someone who can guide you.
What are some of the biggest challenges for foster care alums when trying to enter higher education?
Hamilton: It’s really scary leaving the foster care system, especially if you’ve been in it your whole life. Sometimes foster parents let you go — ‘You’re 18, I don’t get paid for you anymore, peace.’ OK, well what do I do for housing? Where do I go? How do I shelter myself, feed myself? I don’t have any job skills — who’s going to teach me how to interview? Who’s going to teach me about self-care? What about when I have a bad day and I need somebody to talk to — who do I go to? So when you don’t have that foundation, and then life happens and continues to happen, you’re going to spiral. There’s no one coming in to say, ‘I see a barrier, let me intervene so this person can continue to thrive.’ That’s why programs like PUSH are so important.
Davis: One of the biggest challenges is establishing a support system, and really understanding how that plays a huge part in a student staying in education. We don’t trust a lot, and because of that, we have a hard time building relationships. So we need consistency from supportive adults that allows us to build trust over time.
Hicks: A lot of it involves a lack of understanding in many institutions, including public schools. I didn’t have a lot of college prep in high school. Individuals in foster care need to be identified and receive certain services and be made aware of certain resources, like the State College Tuition Waiver.
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Clearly, the statistics involving foster care and higher education are sobering — 70% of youth in foster care want to go to college, only 3% go on to earn a degree. What are your thoughts about those numbers, including how to change them?
Hicks: A lot of what I do now is just letting kids know they can go to college, and what they need to do. I don’t want it to be a situation where no one ever told them anything. What they choose to do with their life is what they choose to do. But I’m going to be that person who tries to encourage you and tries to help open up your eyes to the different aspects of life and the things that you can do.
Davis: When you see the stats, what you naturally do is put yourself in a category where you’re not part of that 3%. You think, ‘They don’t have any expectations of us, so I shouldn’t have those expectations of myself.’ When I was growing up, I always heard, ‘Kids like you don’t go to college, they don’t succeed.’ Adults have to tell them that they can go to college, and tell them about the resources they need to get there and the resources that are available once they are there.
Hamilton: It’s a sad statistic, but it’s one that I try to look at in a positive way. If 70% want to go to college, that means those are all kids we can potentially support to go on to earn a degree. If they have the desire, we can give them the will to make it happen. If PUSH wasn’t around, who knows how many kids from foster care would have come to campus and left after the first semester? If PUSH had been at my first college, I can almost guarantee you I wouldn’t have left after that first semester.
You’re all parents now. What is that experience like for you?
Hamilton: I am a proud wife and mother of four beautiful children. I love being a mother and being able to provide my children with a life I didn't have. I am also blessed to be able to work for myself because this allows me the opportunity to spend quality time with my children. What I am doing now is providing an easier life for my children as kids and as adults. When they transition into adulthood they certainly will have more than enough resources to live a successful life. This is what I am sure all parents want, and I am able to make this happen. This truly makes me feel very proud. Being a mother is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Motherhood pushes me to be the best person I can be and everything I do is for my kids. I live to make sure they are emotionally, spiritually, educationally, physically, and mentally well taken care of. My kids mean everything to me. There is nothing I wouldn't do for them.
Davis: I’ve been married for two years and have a 17-month-old daughter. It’s a very different chapter of my life, and the most life-changing chapter. This is not like anything else I’ve ever had to do. I have to teach her morals and values and guide her. This child is a mirror of myself — we’re doing things hand-in-hand. It’s been one of the most incredible things that I’ve had to do, and sometimes the hardest. You think you’ve overcome certain things in life, but your child makes you look directly at some of those challenges and traumas. I never had safety — that’s one of the biggest things I’ve had to deal with all my life. The coolest thing I’ve been able to do is provide a safe environment for her.
Hicks: I have a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old. Growing up, I always wanted kids because of all the things I missed as a kid. My dad was never around, so I always said, ‘When I have kids, I’m going to make sure I’m at all their events. I’ll always approach them with love, and discipline with love.’ Putting your kids to bed, waking them up, sending them off to school, watching them grow up, sharing your knowledge with them. That’s something I always greatly desired.