On a Tuesday afternoon in June, 55-year-old Sheila White found herself the 115th person in a line of prospective college students waiting to register for University of the District of Columbia’s fall term. White remembers the waiting time fondly, unbothered by the line’s length. She would have been willing to wait all day if necessary, the task’s tedium incapable of diluting her excitement at taking a monumental step towards a dream that had been put off for too long.
White, a DC native, has always possessed a knack for learning and an inclination to tackle any academic challenge. Although she was forced to drop out of school in ninth grade to raise her first child, she continuously stressed to her children the importance of an education, ensured that all of them completed high school on time, and worked as a teaching aid and substitute teacher at Fletcher-Johnson Middle School for over 10 years.
Still, White knew from the moment she left school that she would find a way to return.
“I was always going to go back,” she states. “It was instilled in me. I made it so important to my kids—I preached it so much—so there was never a question. As long as I had breath in my body, I was going back!”
At the age of 49, White enrolled in the External Diploma Program at Ballou STAY High School. Ecstatic to be back at school, she threw herself into her work, and after completing her requirements in just three months, on a hot D.C. summer night, she stood in a gold cap and gown and proudly collected her high school diploma.
White never intended to stop there, her love for learning prompting her to pursue plans for further education at the collegiate level. However, these plans were derailed three years ago when a series of devastating events including being robbed, a flood in her apartment, and an illness landed her on the streets.
“I would stay up all night and watch the sun come up,” White remembers. “Then I would go to a museum and sit. First I was angry about my situation. Then something told me I needed to fight back and do what I needed to do for me. I had that time to think what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and so I decided to go to the shelter.”
At the shelter, White was initially intrigued when she found out they had a daily art class. Seeing the class as an opportunity to learn, she decided to attend; however, she was disappointed to find it was nothing more than coloring books.
“It’s not for me, White remembers thinking. “I’m better than this. It’s not the class I need.”
After two years at the shelter and prospects of her continued education slipping away, White accidentally stumbled upon the 13th and G street location of Street Sense. This happy accident has allowed her to return to the classroom, expand her intellectual horizons, and discover a passion for filming.
Coming in each morning from her shelter on 5th street, White has taken full advantage of every artistic and media program Street Sense has to offer.
“I’m here Monday through Friday, and I go to every workshop they have. I’ve done everything from writing in the newspaper to taking pictures to doing theatrical work to the film cooperative to interactive art,” she declares.
Through Street Sense, White has also become involved with DCTV—DC’s only television station devoted exclusively to local programing with a focus on empowering citizens to tell their own stories. It was there where White found her passion for the camera. When Street Sense offered to pay for a 16-week class at the station, she jumped at the opportunity and graduated from the program with certifications in videography, editing, and production.
“I loved learning how to edit the film, interview people, and do the lighting” she exclaims. “I’m always telling my story, which I don’t mind telling, but my best thing is being behind the camera. I like to zoom in on people and let them tell their stories. That led me to go sign up at UDC because then I knew I wanted to go to college for media.
“With my first year, I’ll have to take basic english and stuff like that, but once I’m done with the basic classes, I want to transfer to American University or Trinity to study liberal arts and communications.”
With regards to her post-grad plans, White intends to come full-circle.
“Once I get my degree, I think I would like to do my internship here at Street Sense. I love the work they do, and I want to go behind the camera and video them,” White declares.
On Tuesday, June 20, White received her acceptance letter from UDC, rendering her an official Firebird. Preparing to take her placement tests on July 12 and currently in contact with the university about financial aid packages, White is doing everything she can to be ready for August 17, the day her courses will begin. Her smile radiant, her eyes sparkling with anticipation as she glances every few minutes at her phone, waiting for a text from her registration advisor about her fall schedule, she can barely contain her excitement.
“I’m a freshman” she repeatedly exclaims, incapable of uttering those words without a grin spreading instantly across her face. “I’m a freshman. Once I got my high school diploma, I thought, this ain’t enough. Once I got that degree, I knew I wanted another one.”
White is more than ready to get after her next cap and gown.