Two Years Ago, She was Homeless. Now She’s About to Graduate From College

homeless college student
Sadie Rivera relaxes on her bed. Tampa, FL Samantha Dunscombe - The Penny Hoarder
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Committing to college takes a ton of hard work and dedication under the best of circumstances.

But what if you had to pursue your education without a steady roof over your head?

Sadie Rivera was only 18 years old when her foster mother sent her a fateful text message.

After a series of misunderstandings and a subsequent falling out, Rivera was informed, in no uncertain terms, that she wasn’t invited back home. She’d have to find alternate housing arrangements.

The high school senior was visiting the University of South Florida when she received the message. A lifelong good student, she’d planned to start college during the summer semester, immediately after graduation.

Although she’d already enrolled and her high school social worker and a USF admissions representative had discussed her housing arrangements, the documentation hadn’t yet been processed.

Suddenly, nothing was a given. Rivera was homeless.

That was more than two years ago. Today, she’s working toward her A.A. before transferring to Portland State University for her bachelor’s degree. She’s got straight-A’s and plans to pursue a Ph.D.

Here’s how she did it.

Getting By With a Little Help

homeless college student
Sadie and her friend, Lupe Terrazas, wait for a polaroid photo to develop at St Petersburg Beach, Fla. Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

“I’ve always been really independent,” Rivera told me during our interview in her Tampa apartment.

The scene itself supported her assertion. Surrounded by Rivera’s eclectic decor, including tie-dye tapestries and a handmade mask a friend brought home from Costa Rica, it was easy to feel her strong spirit and sense her wanderlust.

But despite her self-reliance, Rivera’s circumstances forced her to ask for help. And luckily, she found the support she needed in her generous network of friends.

Immediately after her foster mother kicked her out in May 2014, Rivera managed to secure cheap housing for a few months at a vacant home owned by her friend’s father.

Although the $200 per month rent meant money was tight, Rivera was already balancing her high school schedule with working three to five shifts a week at skate apparel shop Journey’s, so she was able to make it work.

But by mid-July, the situation was no longer viable, and she had to move on.

For a month and a half, Rivera slept wherever she could: Motel 6, a variety of friends’ couches, the beach.

homeless college student
Sadie plays with her cat Zayne in her apartment in Tampa, Fla. Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

A particularly generous friend, Zylkia Diaz, let Rivera keep her belongings — and her cat — at her family’s home. The family also invited Rivera to participate in their biweekly laundry days.

Heartbreakingly, although Rivera was somehow able to hobble through her first semester at USF, she was unable to reschedule a work shift that conflicted with an important exam. Although she’d had an A, missing the exam meant she automatically failed the class.

With an F on her report card and still without a roof over her head, Rivera ended up dropping out during the summer semester of 2014.

However, her newly open schedule allowed her to start working full time — and then some. She picked up two more jobs to add to her shifts at Journey’s, waiting tables at the local Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s.

Although she still didn’t have a steady place to stay, the dress code at both restaurants was, luckily, all black — a color she owned a lot of. And Journey’s let her wear whatever she wanted.

Finding meals, rides and showers when and where she could, Rivera worked 80-hour weeks without knowing where she’d sleep at the end of each long day.

By Sept. 1, 2014, her hustle paid off: She’d saved enough money to rent an apartment, splitting the space and the security deposit with two roommates.

Rebuilding a Life From the Bottom Up

homeless college student
Sadie Rivera at the beach, a place where she would go when she said she felt lost. Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

After finally securing shelter, Rivera took some time to save money, gather her life together and, admittedly, party a little too hard. She was still just 18, and her morale was understandably low.

“I worked for a year and I didn’t even think about school,” Rivera said. “I felt really lost in life. I had no direction. No goal.”

But she’s more than compensated for any teenage mistakes with her current level of organization and responsibility.

While she focused on recouping her finances and sanity, Rivera also filed a FAFSA. In September 2015, she started classes at Hillsborough Community College, restarting her interrupted journey toward realizing her dreams.

homeless college student
Rivera studies art at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla. Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Today, Rivera’s busy finishing up the penultimate semester of her A.A. degree.

She’s since graduated from her admittedly crappy (but at-least-existent) first apartment to the cute second-story flat overlooking a lake where we held our interview. She now lives with only one human roommate, plus his dog and her cat.

She’s also moved on from all three of her previous jobs and now works 25 to 30 hours per week at The Pub at Tampa’s International Plaza and Bay Street.

homeless college student
Rivera serves customers at The Pub in Tampa, Fla. Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Did I mention she’s also taking five three-credit classes and has A’s in all of them?

The most incredible part of the whole story is Rivera still manages to get a solid eight hours of sleep every night. I’m kind of convinced she has a time turner.

But maybe it’s just that when Rivera sets her mind to something, she doesn’t take half measures.

As I continued to gaze around the room, my eyes pulled by the multitude of colorful knick-knacks, I soon came upon the whiteboard calendar hung on the back of her closet door.

Each date’s square held at least three items, and a budget on the left-hand side detailed every bill, from rent to cell phone to a 99-cent payment to Apple.

While I grew even more conscious (and appreciative) of the precious free time Rivera was spending chatting with me, she explained how she finds time to study in the midst of all she does.

“I squeeze in studying anywhere I can,” she said. “I write on every single piece of paper that I own.”

She’s also saved enough cash to plunk down a $4,000 down payment on her first car. I didn’t manage to accomplish this feat until I was 25. Rivera hasn’t even celebrated her 21st birthday yet.

A Bright Future

homeless college student
Rivera long boards at St Petersburg Beach – Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Once Rivera receives her A.A. this May, she’s off to Oregon to start studying for her bachelor’s degree at Portland State University.

Although she originally intended to double major in education and psychology, an introductory philosophy course changed her path.

For now, her plan is to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy so she can teach it and inspire other students like her — ideally at schools abroad.

But aside from getting all the education she can and keeping her hard-earned roof above her head, Rivera admitted she’s “winging it,” in the best way possible.

“I finally made a decision for myself,” she said. “I’m going to travel and see what this career can bring to me.”

And this optimist will keep looking forward.

“Every day I wake up and it’s another great day. I spent a lot of time being negative and that doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Your Turn: What’s the hardest challenge you’ve ever overcome?

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.