Andrea Young, 38, has had a long road to here, where we met her working as a medical volunteer at the Memphis Roller Derby. 

As an infant she was left on her great-grandmother’s step. Andrea lived with her in a nursing home, was homeless for a while, and ended up dropping out of high school even though she enjoyed being a student.

The other kids made fun of her, she says. From 9th grade to 11th grade she wore the same pair of white, K-Swiss shoes. She wore holes into them, they got dingy, she tried to clean them with shoe polish.

Eventually she met her husband, moved to Memphis, and enrolled in a program where she earned her high-school degree and then became a certified nursing assistant. Now she’s studying to be an EMT at Southwest Tennessee Community College.

Getting her EMT will allow her to earn as much as $21 per hour, Andrea says, up from $14.50 now. 

“I’m happy for what I’ve done for myself,” she says.

She tells her two boys, 8 and 5, that they need to go to college. The older one wants to be a doctor and drive a Lamborghini. (“You’re going to have to go to college if you want nice things,” she says she tells him.) Her younger son wants to be a diesel mechanic and fix monster trucks. 

A career counselor at the community college told her something once that sticks with her: The less money you make the harder you work, the counselor said, and the more money you make the easier the work. She’s found it to be true. 

“Now you can see you can have a rough childhood and still make it in life,” she says. “Never give up.”

The Back-To-School Road Trip
Over eight days we’re driving from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way. Follow us on Twitter: @opencampusmedia.