All she could think about was her runny nose, her allergies.
EuStacia Moss stood on stage in a long line of black gowns, mortarboard pinned to her brown twists, and sneezed. Loudly.
She texted family members like crazy for some Kleenex. None obliged, not wanting to interrupt the special occasion at the CenturyLink Center, where the College of St. Mary was holding its commencement exercise.
So EuStacia sniffed and did what she has always done. She tilted her head up and kept walking.
Moving forward, one step at a time.
This is how you become a college graduate at age 34, an improbable destination for someone whose hardships began early.
Her earliest memory is being kicked in the mouth at age 3. She remembers being told she was “bad.” She remembers moving from home to home, from institution to institution, too many places to count.
The memories are a blur. The Nebraska Children's Home Society. The Child Saving Institute. Uta Halee. Salvation Army. Bouncing from one relative to the next. The foster home where older kids had to help younger kids and had to work in the family's grocery store.
EuStacia finally had it. At 15, she ran away and spent a summer breaking into strangers' homes while they were at work. She would make herself something to eat, meticulously clean up, find a spot in the basement to sleep and then leave before anyone got home.
“I knew how to hide,” she said.
Did she ever. A foster child like EuStacia might have a ream of paperwork, might have a warrantlike order for her to be returned to the state's care.
But she spent the summer running around with her favorite cousin, who also had a troubled childhood and is now serving two life sentences for murder.
At the end of the summer, EuStacia turned herself in to police because it was time for school — the solitary constant in her rootless life that she could not bear to miss.
EuStacia landed back in foster care and to no one's surprise but her own was pregnant at age 15. A chorus of adult voices told her she couldn't do it. Babies having babies do not finish school, do not go on to lead productive lives, do not become good mothers, do not end cycles of poverty. She was urged to give up her child.
But she kept the child, and she did finish school, graduating on time and near the top of her class from the old Father Flanagan High in 1997. By then, EuStacia was living on her own with her young daughter, Natalia, determined to do the opposite of how she was raised. Artwork on the walls. Books. Praising her daughter.
The next dozen years brought more challenges: a marriage that ended in divorce, three more daughters, uterine cancer.
Through it all, EuStacia relied on what had gotten her through childhood: putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward regardless.
She got by doing telemarketing and driving a school bus and living in government-subsidized housing. The court had ordered child support, but none of the fathers of her children pitched in, she said.
When her youngest daughter entered kindergarten in 2009, EuStacia made good on a promise to herself. She, too, went to school.
The College of St. Mary gave her a full scholarship. EuStacia was nervous: Would the students be all white? All young? All removed from the kind of life she had?
Could she hack it in the classroom after a decade away? Could she add this kind of full-time commitment to an already jampacked schedule that included full-time work as a school bus driver and raising four girls?
Take it a step at a time, she told herself.
When the city said her rental house was too unsafe and gave her 30 days to leave, she kept walking.
EuStacia studied for midterms AND moved her family into a new place. She made the dean's list that semester.
When she thought the College of St. Mary needed more diversity training, she got the college to start a black history class and a campus group that promotes African-American culture.
When she couldn't drive school buses AND do required academic fieldwork during her junior year, she kept walking. EuStacia quit the best-paying job she had ever had and rationed her small student loans to cover the bills.
Walk, walk, walk, she told herself.
To senior year. Across the stage at CenturyLink. From one graduation (hers) to another (Natalia's, from Omaha Northwest High School).
Her journey is far from complete.
EuStacia wants to earn a master's degree in social work. She wants to open a home for pregnant foster girls. She wants to buy a house, to finish the memoir she has begun, to see Natalia through college. Natalia plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha this fall, studying music education and Spanish. EuStacia wants to see her other daughters — Luxola, 13, Kiara, 10, and A'Myrah, 9 — complete their college educations.
EuStacia says she doesn't regret her childhood.
“It made me who I am,” she said. “I don't wish it upon anyone else. But I'm really grateful. ... I like the person I've become.”
We talk for more than an hour at the lovely, light-filled student commons on the College of St. Mary campus, and EuStacia springs up.
She's got to be at her job in five minutes — she works as a caregiver for elderly, homebound people.
She walks out of the building and past a statue of a woman who is walking.
The College of St. Mary has embraced this symbol.
It's everywhere here on campus, along with banners that read: “Walk Tall.”
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