Sepricia White made a lot of people proud when she took hold of her diploma from Kentucky State University Friday night, but the one that brings the biggest smile to her face is her little brother.
That’s because when 11-year-old Jakeis needed a better home life, White took him in. And when she needed a reason to push through the tough times and earn her degree, her brother provided the motivation to finish.
“I want him to see me walk across that stage, and I want to make him proud, like his sister made it,” the 25-year-old said, sitting on campus a few hours before the commencement ceremony.
The Louisville native enrolled at the University of Kentucky after high school, but left a year later to return home to care for Jakeis, her half brother who she affectionately calls “Red” after the color of his hair.
Without elaborating, White said her family realized the 6-year-old needed to be in a better situation, and at the age of 20, she stepped in to take custody of him.
“He was in a situation he didn’t need to be in, and he didn’t deserve in,” she said. “I felt like it was put on my heart, it was something I had to do for him because I knew I wanted better for him.”
But the two barely knew each other, having met for the first time just two years earlier. They had to build a relationship from scratch, White said.
“It was hard to try to start that relationship and be a parent to someone you really barely know,” she said. “I didn’t know what he was allergic to. I didn’t know what he liked or didn’t like.”
She worked full time at a factory, and although she was happy there, she knew it wasn’t helping her reach her dream of being a teacher.
So she packed Red up, and the two moved to Frankfort in 2008 so she could enroll at KSU. She set a goal of finishing in four years.
Things were tough at first. Red had trouble adjusting to his new life in Frankfort, and White said he acted out at school.
White had stress of her own, balancing school with parenting and pregnancy with her daughter, Nia, now 3. Her life wasn’t carefree like it was for many of her classmates, and her grades slipped until she failed two classes.
“I don’t think a lot of people understood because all of my friends were younger than me, and they didn’t have a brother or a child that they were raising, so nobody really understood what I meant when I said I was tired,” she said, emphasizing the exhaustion she felt.
“I was the only person walking into basketball games with a daughter in a carrier and a little brother with me. I was constantly fighting a battle – I wanted to be a regular student, versus trying to have two kids.”
But life “slowly but surely” started to improve for White, her brother and her new baby.
Her KSU professors, adviser and others helped her find community resources, arranging childcare and mentoring for Red, and making sure she didn’t go without food or housing.
She got involved with the Student Government Association and the yearbook staff, and graduated Friday with honors and a 3.2 GPA.
“I feel like I’m a positive person, and I just try to make the best of whatever situation I’m in,” she said. “If I could go back and do it all over again, I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
White earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She’s looking for a job in the area so she can work toward her unofficial goal of becoming “the best teacher ever.”
She believes the tough experience of raising her brother will make her a better teacher and mentor for kids facing their own struggles.
“When you go into a classroom, there are so many different kids from so many different backgrounds,” she said.
“A lot of them don’t have that typical family life, with a mom and dad and a white picket fence – the stuff everybody dreams of.
“Just because a kid is acting out, I can’t really say he’s bad, and I can’t put a label on him because I have no clue what his life is like after he leaves school.”
Several months ago, the family decided it was time for Red to move back in with his mom in Louisville.
White said he’s doing well, and the two still see each other on weekends. They get to do regular brother-and-sister stuff now, like going out for pizza and skateboarding.
Red is making progress in school, and White said she’s proud of the effort he’s making. She hopes her own perseverance inspires him to stick with his studies too.
Red’s been saying – since the third grade – that he plans to attend KSU someday. White only half-jokingly says he knows more people on campus than she does.
“With him struggling so much in school, I thought, for him to do better, he has to see me doing better,” she said.
“I think that’s what really pushed me. If anything, I had to hold it together for the kids because it really wasn’t about me anymore.”