From foster child to college student

By: Julie Peterson, CNN Email
By: Julie Peterson, CNN Email

Caroline James earned a master's degree from the school of hard knocks, long before she ever got to The University of Alabama.

"I have a bruise right now that persists for years and years, and it's on my leg. It's very long. It's from a heated belt. He put the belt on the stove and it took the skin off, just like that," said James.

The college senior says the bruise is a reminder of her father who died when she was 16.

"My father was, because he was a drug addict, oftentimes he wasn't at our home, so he would just go off for on weeks on end; my mother had left us when we were very young. And so during those times, I would just take care of my brothers. I would do anything from gathering food from neighbors, to fixing food in the house," she said.

Because they missed so much school, James taught herself and her younger brothers many of the basics, like how to read. Finally, she got help.

"I remember at eleven when I actually got us into the foster care system, because I had to gather information on my father. I was taking crack and marijuana to the school, to show my teacher: Look, my father is a drug addict, we're not, we're not able to live in our own household," said James, "And so I was stepping up to be a mother, just to raise myself, at an age where most children are jumping rope."

She was taken in by a foster family. Then, her big break came in ninth grade: a magnet high school recruited her. It was a place that recognized her potential.

Later, at 18, she aged out of the foster care system. Success at the magnet school led to a college acceptance, leaving her past behind.

"As soon as I got to the University of Alabama, I did not want to discuss it. I said, you know what, I'm not going to be that kid that needs another hand-out," she said, "I'm sick of it! I'm sick of being ashamed, I'm sick of everyone knowing what has happened to me, I'm embarrassed, I don't want to be that kid put on display anymore."

James has a 3.8 GPA, carries a double major and is a member of Mortar Board.

"I'm very excited to have things that are of my own- excited to have something to bring into a space that is my own,"

Even so, it's not easy.

"I think that many people perceive foster students to be purposefully under-achievers. I think that they think that given the background that we've come from, we don't want to achieve, we don't want do anything with ourselves," she said. "We have the tools yet we don't really want to work with them, um, and I think that what they're missing out on is that oftentimes, foster kids don't have the tools and furthermore, they don't know what to do with the tools once they get them."

As the self-starter pursues law school and non-profit work, she's knocking down those foster child stereotypes, every step of the way.

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