Chantel Brandhagen is a college graduate.
"At first I didn't think much of it," said Brandhagen, a single mother of three. "It was kind of like, 'Oh, I'm graduating; no big deal.'
But then the reality sunk in. "I, a poor woman, someone who various people thought was worthless, finally made it," she said. Tears of "surprise and joy" ran down her face.
Brandhagen grew up in poverty, raised by a mother who struggled with addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs. As a young child Brandhagen was hospitalized for eating lead-based paint. "It caused a minor learning disability, so I've struggled with my education," she said.
In her adult life, Brandhagen became a victim of domestic violence. "But I always knew that education was my way out of poverty and bad relationships," she said. Enrolling in 2005, the journey to a college degree was long and hard, but Brandhagen was determined.
"(Professor) Beatrice Jacobson first suggested women's studies to me when I shared my desire to be a writer," said Brandhagen. "It intrigued me because I wanted to help other women who are poor, especially those who have suffered from domestic violence. I also wanted to expand my knowledge about the problems women face; understand the effect of gender roles on our subconscious—and offer my own knowledge on the subject, to validate what I already knew."
As the commencement ceremony fades and 2013 begins, Brandhagen feels confident that she will find a job or continue to graduate school. "My GPA was over 3.8; I work very hard and do what I can to succeed," she said. And Brandhagen considers herself fortunate.
"I believe that as a poor, single parent, I am the exception, not the rule," she said. "Some who make it out (of poverty) think that just because they were able to do it means that others can. I am very well aware of the challenges that people face. I also know that the system is set up—though it may not have been designed this way—to make it nearly impossible for a person in poverty to get out of poverty. There shouldn't be so many obstacles stopping people from creating a better life for themselves and their children."
Brandhagen has within her a strong desire to "change the world."
"I see so many things wrong with our system, and I want to find a way to alleviate some of the problems," she said. "I have also heard so many people say that all poor people abuse the welfare system. I try to correct them and show that being poor isn't easy and that getting out of poverty isn't as simple as it sounds. I am empathetic towards most people who are different from myself. No matter what my future holds, I hope to help others."