City College Student’s Odyssey From Foster Care to Success

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Jessica Allen, right, with her daughter Neveah Kelly.

This week, Jessica Allen headed off on a vacation, her first in many years. It is, in fact, a joint Spring Break trip with her daughter; both are students and both could use the time off.

Allen, 29, is currently enrolled at City College and will transfer to a state school in the fall. Her daughter, Neveah Kelly, is a 14-year-old high school freshman.

So, you can do the math there.

A trip like this is the upside of having a baby at 15, as Allen did. There were, to put it mildly, plenty of hurdles to overcome. But, to a remarkable degree, Allen overcame them. She has, already, achieved more than many people following a less meandering, more conventional path who were blessed with advantages she did not have.

And, now, she’s going to finish her degree.

Or, perhaps, degrees, plural. Her overarching goal is to become a civil rights lawyer. It was this week announced that, this summer, she will be one of 10 students nationwide to attend an all-expenses-paid Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship in London.

“I’m so excited. I’m going to get to go to school! I worked so hard to get to this place,” she says while seated in the living room of the Excelsior District home where she’s lived for the past eight years. “But I would not change my experience.”

Allen arrived in San Francisco at age 10 and was in foster care by age 14. She had her daughter at 15. But she attended Hilltop High School in the Mission, an establishment designed to meet to the needs of teenage parents, with childcare on-site. She actually graduated young, at 17, and was her class valedictorian.

She also became a registered doula — a birth coach — by age 17, and worked with many of her high school colleagues; she has since assisted on more than 100 births.

As an 18th birthday gift, Allen found herself abruptly emancipated from the foster care system. This was a challenging time: She was on her own, raising a toddler, and enrolled in junior college. Soon, and not for the last time, she would be forced to withdraw from school and work full-time.

But, unlike so many young people armed with a degree — and crippling school debt — who are forced to settle for workaday employment, Allen’s jobs tended to be more meaningful. Before she had even turned 20, she was a case manager at the Vera Casey Teen Parenting Program, operating under the aegis of the City of Berkeley.

“I was very young and a case manager — it was wild to me,” she recalled. “That set me up for my next decade of work in the community.”

Allen subsequently became a case manager working with previously incarcerated mothers navigating substance abuse programs; counseled families and youth in foster care or at risk of entering foster care; helped formulate policy and trained San Francisco staff for treatment of the city’s transitional-aged youth (TAY) population; and assisted LGBTQ children interacting with the court system.

She first enrolled at City College in 2011 and, in some years, worked 40-plus hour weeks, took night courses, and also parented her daughter. She is not subsidized in her Excelsior District home, and notes that she has been financially on her own for these past eight years.

“There are a lot of people who can’t find a job with a degree. But I have a decade of experience,” she says with a smile. “Now I just have to get that degree.”

Allen’s decade of on-the-ground experience was meaningful, and she helped people — but it also taught her that she’d like to get off the ground. She identifies as a queer Afro-Latinx, and would like to uplift any and all of these marginalized communities. But on an overarching basis.

As a case manager “I felt like I was scratching the surface,” she says. “To me, I saw burnout. And a culture of billing — ‘these are Medi-Cal patients; we need to bill these hours.’ I felt like this job was not sustainable. I decided I wanted to make an impact through the law.”

Allen has applied to a handful of UC and CSU schools; she’s been accepted to San Francisco State, San Jose State, Cal State East Bay and Cal State Los Angeles. She’s waiting on UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, and UC Berkeley.

Depending on where she is accepted, she may well be leaving San Francisco. And that’s difficult.

“Oh, I’ll be back,” she says. “Just with more superpowers.”

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