Kaylia Ervin was six years old when she decided she wanted to be a lawyer.
"Growing up in and out of the foster care, I was also in and out of court rooms," said Kaylia, a Muskegon native. "I would see what lawyers were doing and always thought I could do their job 10 times better."
Now 22 years old and a recent college graduate, Kaylia is well on her way to achieving her dream of becoming a lawyer.
Kaylia came to Ferris State University under the Ferris Youth Initiative program, which helps support students who have aged out of the foster care system. Despite spending 10 years in foster care and dropping out of school in the ninth grade, she went on to finish an adult education high school completion program.
"I saw college as a way out," she said. "I knew I had the brains to do more and that I should use my God-given gifts to make a way for myself."
She applied to Ferris in the Criminal Justice program with the ultimate goal of earning her undergraduate degree in preparation for law school.
"I decided to come to Ferris because a teacher I really respected told me if I want to do anything in criminal justice to go to Ferris, because they were the best," she said. "The fact that there was no application fee was important too, because being in foster care, I didn't have money for college application fees."
At Ferris, Kaylia dealt not only with transitioning into college life, but also transitioning out of the foster care system.
"I didn't know anything about college coming in, not even the difference between a fraternity and sorority, everything was new to me," she said. "You're glad to have the freedom when you first get here, but it is kind of scary at the same time because you're on your own."
She is grateful for the FYI program at Ferris, saying the program was instrumental in helping her not just transition, but also thrive in college. In addition to financial and advising support, FYI also works to bolster the well-being and character development of students.
"When I first got to Ferris, Nicholas Campau (FYI assistant program advisor) helped me switch my dorm, so I could stay on campus during break. This was just in case I was ever in a position where I didn't have anywhere to go, then I could just stay in my dorm," she said. "I thought it was really thoughtful."
Another challenge Kaylia faced was learning how to study.
"Because I had dropped out of high school, I wasn't used to having a study life," she said. "In the adult education program it was mostly online – you do your classwork and go home, so coming to Ferris was an adjustment."
During her time at Ferris, Kaylia faced the additional challenge of taking guardianship of her younger sister. So in addition to her academic responsibilities, she had to enroll her sister in school, attend teacher conferences and essentially become a parent overnight.
"It was a lot, I was barely doing some of those things for myself," Kaylia said. "It was a struggle, but it was worthwhile. I tried to lead by example; she saw me going to work, studying and having a little bit of a social life. I wanted to show her that it can be done."
Kaylia not only has met the challenges she has faced, but surpassed them. She was one of only 12 students chosen nationally for an internship with the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute in Washington, D.C. While there she sent a policy recommendation regarding foster care to Congress and spoke at a congressional briefing on the issue. She also performed a separate internship in Washington, D.C. with Sen. Debbie Stabenow's office, where she worked on constituent concerns and communications.
In her application for the Congressional internship, she wrote:
"I had the privilege of learning early on that it is not the hand you were dealt or the strategic way you plan to play the game. It's all about your game face. It's looking complication, struggle and defeat in the eye and saying you're not better than me or the end of me."
Thanks to her determination, hard work and focus, Kaylia was accepted into Michigan State University's College of Law. She also received scholarship support for her studies there.
"I can't describe what I'm feeling, being valued by such an institution," she said.
Susan McNamara, an academic advisor who spent four years as Kaylia's mentor through FYI, said Kaylia could have been "yet another statistic."
"Fewer than 5 percent of foster youth ever graduate college, let alone continue their education beyond their undergraduate degrees," she said. "Kaylia is a survivor, but she hasn't just survived; she has thrived here at Ferris and has become an exceptional role model to all foster youth who will follow her here."
Through tenacity and determination, Kaylia has tackled challenges and done so with poise and grace.
"I'm just proud to be here standing on my own two feet," Kaylia said. "I'm going off to law school. I'm accomplishing goals one little step at a time.