On a warm evening in Los Angeles, amid the roar of applause and rowdy cheers at USC’s commencement ceremony on May 12, Felicitas Reyes clutched her college diploma and wondered if she might be dreaming.
“It was what I’d wanted since forever, but it felt so surreal,” Reyes tells PEOPLE.
Reyes, who grew up in and out of foster care to escape the “roller coaster” chaos of life at home, is a statistical anomaly – and a shining example of someone who refuses to give up on a dream.
Last year, over 20,000 young women and men between the ages of 18 and 21 (it varies by state) aged-out of the foster care system, many of whom ended up losing government assistance, which further complicates the uncertainty in their already traumatic lives.
Yet only 3 percent of these kids manage to accomplish what Reyes just did – and graduate college. “I just always knew that if I wanted to make another type of life for myself, college was the only way,” she says.
For as long as Reyes can remember, life has been hard. She was born in Georgia where her Mexican immigrant father had come to look for construction work. He soon began drifting “in and out” of her life.
Her mother turned to drugs and alcohol to cope, she says. By the time she turned 6, she had already spent a year in foster care. “I can’t even remember how many schools I attended,” she recalls. “We were always moving because of evictions.”
In 2003, the then 9-year-old boarded a Greyhound bus with her mother and siblings and traveled to Orange County, California, where her mother’s family lived. They bounced around between homeless shelters and cheap motels before social workers stepped in and placed all eight kids in a group home.
The siblings were eventually sent to live with various foster parents, only to be returned to their mother, who often struggled to hold down a job while fighting to stay sober. Before long, the siblings were taken away from her again.
“It was a cycle that just kept repeating itself,” Reyes says.