When Cordelia Cranshaw dons her cap and gown for George Mason University’s graduation ceremony on Saturday, she will know she has beat the odds.
That Cranshaw will graduate from the Fairfax university with a degree in social work is no coincidence. The 21-year-old sees it as the culmination of a life spent in and out of unstable homes and foster care.
Just 3 percent of children in foster care graduate college, according to a study by the Children’s Advocacy Institute. Cranshaw is among that 3 percent, and she wants to spend her future helping other underprivileged children make it there as well.
“I always have the ability to persevere through every challenge I’ve faced,” Cranshaw said. “I’m beating those statistics, and I’m going to help other people beat them as well.”
Cranshaw spent the first 12 years of her life passed among various family members throughout Fairfax County. Her mother was in and out of jail, and her father was an emotionally abusive alcoholic, leaving Cordelia to protect her younger sister and herself.
She has eight other brothers and sisters, all half-siblings, but they too were scattered among various family members or were just old enough to live on their own.
In seventh grade, life seemed to be looking up. She found two mentors and role models in teachers Amanda Dorr and Kelly Bradley at Kilmer Middle School in Fairfax County, who provided stable adult presence in her life.
Then her life turned upside down.
Her mother went to prison for embezzlement, dragging Cranshaw into a swirl of custody battles. She struggled to find a stable living situation and spent many nights couch-surfing. She attended five different middle schools across three school districts in the span of three years.
“I was a 12-year-old, but my mindset was not that of a regular 12-year-old,” Cranshaw said. “You’re supposed to be thinking about homework, not where you’re going to lay your head the next night.”
At the end of ninth grade, she found herself overwhelmed and depressed, and she attempted to kill herself. At that point, she entered the foster care system, which proved to be a turning point in her life.
“I used to hear the worst stories about foster care,” Cranshaw said. “But I’d been homeless. I’d been through nights without eating. Foster care provided some stability. It was something positive with my life, and gave me the opportunity to realize my passion in life.”
Foster care provided a direction and a goal: to help children who struggled the same way that she did.
“I just became this determined girl,” Cranshaw said. “I was determined to graduate high school. I was determined to get to college. I was going to make a difference.”
Cranshaw started college at Old Dominion University studying psychology. Soon, she realized she wanted to do social work instead, so after her sophomore year she transferred to George Mason, which has an accredited social work program.
While in foster care, she received tuition assistance. After aging out of the system when she turned 21 last summer, she was awarded the John J. Hughes Social Work Scholarship from GMU as well as the Beat the Odds Scholarship from the Alexandria Bar Association so she could finish her education.
Now, she is preparing to graduate and to attend the University of Maryland’s graduate program in social work program starting in the fall. She will enter with “advanced standing” thanks to her work at George Mason, allowing her to receive her master’s degree in one year. Afterward, she plans to start a nonprofit organization called ARK, “Acts of Random Kindness,” to help underprivileged youth.
Still, challenges remain. Her mother got out of prison in October, which was a tough adjustment for Cranshaw. And she still feels the weight of responsibility.
“I’m stressing about how I’m going to get my mom, my dad and my sister to my graduation,” Cranshaw said. “They don’t have cars, and they’re relying on me to get them there. Sometimes stuff like that can take away from the moment of me graduating.
“Then I try to pull back and realize, this is an accomplishment,” Cranshaw continued. “I should be happy for myself. I should be proud. Graduation is going to be a really good day.”