Kierra Stowers and Jesse Jackson at Inauguration Cropped BIf you told me five years ago that someday I would be at the Presidential Inauguration, there is no way I would have believed you.

Back then I was associated with the wrong crowd and got kicked out of ninth grade. In Washington you have to be 16 to start the GED process. I was 15, so I basically had a year to get into trouble. In between time I used and sold drugs which lead me in and out of juvenile. After a stressful breakup, my life took a really bad turn.

I moved out of my mother’s home and started living on my own, floating from hotel to hotel and sleeping on my friends’ couches whenever I could. In the middle of all this, I was still determined to get my GED. After doing so my grandfather allowed me to live with him. Although I was now enrolled in college, I was still in and out of jail. My grandpa encouraged me to apply for Phi Theta Kappa and agreed to pay the fee. He said it was something I should do because even though I was getting in trouble, this would prove I was always a good student.

After two years of this, a friend told me about Year Up and knew it was something I had to do. Once I really got into it everything changed. I remember showing up on the first day in the business outfit my mother helped me pick out. It was cool but definitely a different feeling.

At Year Up, we focused a lot on my speech. Back then I couldn’t even put a real sentence together, but they stayed on me and I improved every day. My internship at Liberty Mutual is when I really started to take life seriously. They expected a lot more from me than I did from myself which motivated me to work harder. My colleagues there trained me mentally and helped me plan my future. They took it to a whole new level. By the time I was done with my internship, Year Up graduation felt like an introduction to normal society.

Throughout the program I took night classes at Bellevue College, and just before graduating I received an email with a logo I did not recognize. It turned out to be the presidential logo. It was an invite to the Collegiate Presidential Inaugural Conference. They wanted 900 scholars from around the world to attend the Inauguration and a conference to learn about different careers. It even came with a ticket to the Inaugural Ball. I couldn’t afford to go, but I was the only student on campus with an invite, so I knew I had to make it happen. I put together a slide show and set up a meeting with board members, student government and the college president. I told them my story and about my transformation. In the end they all chipped in and covered my entire trip. I couldn’t believe I had all these people behind me.

One person, who’d seen me dressed professionally throughout the year, invited me to apply for a job with the college. Now I’m helping with student programs. Working on campus has improved my study habits and inspired me to continue my higher education. I see myself graduating in the next year with an AA transfer degree, and then going to another college to study Computer Science. I have a new group of friends that are extremely supportive. I’ve been able to save up for a car and I’m eventually going to get my own apartment.

At the Inauguration, I got the chance to ask Reverend Jesse Jackson a question during the conference. I told him that I was about to start my career and asked him what advice he had for young people like me. He said, “Don’t self-destruct. Don’t self-degrade. Be prepared.” This statement really made me think about its meaning. I was self-destructing and self-degrading a long time ago, and I didn’t feel prepared for such an honor, but I got there because I worked through it. The whole experience in DC gave me a lot of insight into how far I’d come.

I came to Year Up when I was at a huge crossroads, and I didn’t know I could end up where I am now. I’m so glad I had this opportunity.