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Visit the website for Northern Vermont University-Johnson, and near the top of the announcements list you’ll find a link to a special “virtual celebration” of the graduating Class of 2020 — a group of accomplished young Americans who will always be remembered as the “COVID-19 class,” graduating in a year without graduations. Among those names is that of 24-year-old Kayce Gorton from Hinesburg: the daughter of an emotionally troubled mother, a girl who was homeless at times growing up, and a student who dropped out of high school — twice.
“But then I looked at myself in the mirror, and I was like, ‘Where is my life going to lead without a high school diploma?’” Kayce recalls. So the determined 18-year-old went back and fought hard, earning her diploma from Vermont Adult Learning while working full-time.
Now, with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology/sociology with a concentration in criminal justice and a minor in psychology, Kayce is working at Bristol Cliffs Café and taking her time figuring out where her future might take her in these uncertain times. “I did not think that this transition was going to involve a global pandemic and that I wouldn’t know what I’m going to do [for a career],” Kayce says. But in the next breath, she adds: “But I think I’m also in the same boat with a lot of other people right now.”
Kayce has a good handle on uncertainty and change, having survived a childhood filled with chaos. “People are like, ‘Oh, I was seven years old and I learned how to ride a bike,’ and I don’t even know how old I was when I learned how to ride a bike,” Kayce recalls.
“It was really hard growing up, and I don’t remember a lot of things from early on,” she says. “I was made to live with my mother, and she did not have a steady job, or a steady income, or steady housing. My sister and I lived in tents, in campers. And I’m not sure how old I was, but I know we were living in a shelter at one point.”
One of Kayce’s memories from her childhood involved moving schools a lot; her sixth-grade year, she attended five different schools. Fortunately, Kayce started attending Mt. Abraham Union in seventh grade. Since Mt. Abe sits within a five-town district, Kayce’s family’s additional moves from that point forward did not result in her having to change schools, something that became a welcome source of stability in her troubled life. Still, it wasn’t enough to get her to graduate on time from high school. “A lot of things were happening in my personal life, and I decided that I didn’t want to be in school anymore. So I dropped out, then went back to Mt. Abe, and then a year later more personal things happened, and I ended up dropping out again.”
What changed her outlook, she says, was thinking of her close friends’ young children and how they might view her. “I didn’t want them to think that I was less of a person,” Kayce says now. “And I wanted to be better. Not just for them, but also for myself. I wanted to say, ‘I did it. I graduated high school,’ and nobody thought I was going to, absolutely nobody. And I would like to think that these young people might look up to me and say, ‘Wow, since Kayce did that, we can do it too.’”
Knowing that a normal high school schedule — five days a week, eight hours a day — was not going to work for her, Kayce enrolled at Vermont Adult Learning, where she was able to take classes and earn credit for working for Bristol Cliffs Café. “And yeah, I ended up graduating a year late, but I graduated,” Kayce says proudly. “I got my high school diploma in June of 2015.”
While Kayce hadn’t been thinking about college — hadn’t even thought it was in the cards, in fact — things changed for her when, once again, she felt her naysayers were underestimating her, and she wanted to prove them wrong. So, without telling anyone — “because if I didn’t get in I didn’t want anyone to know,” she says — she applied to two schools, Northern Vermont University at Johnson and, due to a family connection, Wilmington University in Wilmington, Delaware. She got into both. Wilmington ended up not being an option for her financially, and her sister, who is 3.5 years older than Kayce, was attending Johnson. So NVU proved to be the better fit.
“Most of my college education was provided by scholarships from VSAC,” Kayce says — and those opportunities weren’t just limited to the Johnson campus. Through the National Student Exchange, Kayce completed a year-long program at California State University at Northridge just outside of Los Angeles her sophomore year. The exchange program took her to a place she had always dreamed of going and vastly expanded her horizons. “I can only say thank you to VSAC. I stayed eight months in California, but I was still able to use my Johnson scholarships and pay Johnson tuition. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford the out-of-state tuition.”
“One of the main struggles that I’ve faced in my life is not being able to afford things that other people can because of where I came from,” Kayce continues. “And VSAC just helped make those dreams possible. I had dreamed of living in LA since I figured out what LA was, and I loved traveling, and I thought I was never going to be able to do it.”
When asked what advice she might give to other young people in her situation, Kayce says, “Don’t listen to the people who are in your ear. Listen to what’s in your heart. If you believe that you can do it, then other people’s opinions don't matter.”
Need help with pursuing your career goals and education needs? VSAC is here to help you. Serving our community is at the heart of all we do. During this ever-changing time, we remain available and committed to help you navigate all your career and education needs. No question or worry is too small or too big to reach out to us and ask for help.
For information on college and career planning and decisions, go to www.vsac.org/decision and also check out our online workshops and resources and online events. For an update of how we can help during the COVID-19 crisis, click here. You can also give us a call at 800-642-3177, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday and online at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay in touch. We’re here for you.