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How A Love Of Reading Helped This Woman Go From Homeless to Harvard

by Gila Lyons

April 29, 2016

This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter H for “Homelessness.”

Image via Flickr user Peretz Partensky (cc)

It’s difficult not to be dazzled by the accomplishments of Connie Chung. The 38-year-old is a published author with a bachelor’s degree from UC-Berkeley and three graduate degrees from Harvard—two master’s and a doctorate of education. Given her academic prowess, one might be surprised to find that Chung spent six years of her youth homeless and alone on the streets of Los Angeles.

At the time, Chung was in the throes of adolesence, and she recalls that school was one of the few places she could rely on for stability. And it’s a good thing she did; Chung says that childhood illiteracy is correlated to lifelong illiteracy. “A poor family doesn’t have books at home or maternal education, even if Mom is intelligent. If you’re despondent about life, and survival is a challenge, literacy won’t be a priority. These kids are told they’re stupid and that college is not an option. Early illiteracy is hard to crawl out of.”

Chung stayed in school full time while she was homeless. She loved learning, especially in English class, and considered school her own “refuge out of hell.” She tested well, which became her saving grace, and earned her a spot in a program for gifted students. “That saved me,” she says, “because I was bussed out of poorly-performing underfunded local schools, which had issues with pregnancy and gang warfare, and to a well-resourced public school.”

But it wasn’t until high school that Chung fell in love with English class, finding solace in reading and writing, especially poetry. “I liked The Temple of My Familiar,” Chung remembers, “There was something very beautiful about the way Alice Walker posed black feminist thought and literature, and the characters were very deep.”

Chung performed well academically, though she admits she had some behavioral issues that went largely ignored. “[Teachers] weren’t equipped to deal with my needs and had no idea I was homeless... I didn’t talk about it until I was 25 years old,” she reflects. “I was surrounded by overachievers, many of whom were achieving more than me.” 

It was easier than she thought to keep the truth from them, Chung says. “There’s this idea that East Asians are a model minority group and are buffered from poverty and do well in school, but that wasn’t my family’s migration narrative.” Chung’s parents, natives of Pyongyang, North Korea, left for South Korea and then the United States to try to build a better life for themselves and their family. “They were traumatized from North Korea and didn’t understand how Western society worked, and it showed. They grew up in such a repressive regime they didn’t understand how to get by. But they worked so hard to give their kids food.” 

Though her parents were highly intelligent and highly resilient, life in America was a struggle. “We grew up in dire poverty,” Chung recalls. “There were problems with eating regularly, keeping furniture in the house, and keeping the electricity on.” Due to a tragedy she chose not to share, Chung’s first episode of homelessness began at age 12.

Almost 40 percent of the homeless population in the United States is under 18, which translates to about 2 million youth who experience a period of homelessness every year. Of those, 5,000 will not survive life on the streets. As a petite Asian girl on her own in Hollywood, Chung says she was at particularly high risk. She remembers running from men who were trying to kidnap and sell her, and though she managed to escape them, other girls she met on the street shared their horrors of being taken and sold sexually.

About 85 percent of confirmed sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, mostly runaway children, according to The Covenant House, the largest “privately funded charity in the Americas providing …services to homeless, abandoned, abused, trafficked, and exploited youth.” Somehow, Chung had managed to live on the streets for six years before benefiting from The Covenant House’s services, but when she was 18, she walked by Hollywood’s chapter of The Covenant House and pushed through the front doors. At first she thought, “I’m not going to be here long.” She ended up staying for four months.

Chung credits The Covenant House with saving her life. There, she had a safe bed, regular meals, and encouragement from the staff. “They believed in me,” Chung says, and “covered me in love. It’s a place of high structure and normalcy. I felt so supported and so loved. It was a sanctuary like a hospital, beyond being homeless. I would willingly live there again.”

Chung remembers meeting an illiterate woman in her bunk who eventually asked Chung to read her the Bible every night. “She would constantly tell me how smart I was and how I was destined for great things,” says Chung. Despite all her success at school, Chung didn’t often hear that kind of praise or have adults in her life who emphasized that they believed in her potential. She says that the support she received at The Covenant House, combined with the skills she was able to hone at school, gave her the confidence to apply UC-Berkeley. By the time she graduated as class commencement speaker of her department (anthropology), Chung says that being away from her family and having housing enabled her to focus on her work.

Berkeley awarded her a scholarship to attend Harvard. Her first master’s degree was in risk and prevention (now called prevention science), her second master’s in human development and psychology, and her doctorate of education in human development and psychology. Today, Chung works for Misssey, an anti-sex trafficking organization, and teaches creative writing at Covenant House in Oakland, where she works to ensure that homeless youth have a safe forum in which to express their feelings.

“A lot of them have been so traumatized they don’t have a safe place and can’t talk about it,” Chung explains. “Homelessness is such a stigmatized experience, I want my writing classes to mitigate some of that internalized shame.”

Ultimately, Chung believes that education is a powerful tool to escape homelessness, though she is wary of the “this formerly homeless person graduated from Harvard so you can, too” narrative. It “puts a lot of pressure on the individual, and it’s about so much more than that,” she explains. “Youth homelessness is a consequence of family instability, poverty, foster care, and other risk factors. When you’re on the streets, it’s hard to continue school, or you get a very inferior education because you go to underfunded under-resourced schools and people don’t believe in you. Surviving on the streets is so [overwhelming] it’s hard to focus on school.”

But it is possible. Chung’s hope is that our country can achieve a sharp decline in youth homelessness by mitigating risk factors, such as family dysfunction and systemic failure, particularly in the foster care and juvenile system. She also advocates for providing trauma-informed care in schools through mental and behavioral health services and identifying children and youth who are vulnerable to homelessness or currently homeless.

Chung holds that it’s not pedagogy or educational policy that’s going to help homeless youth. Rather, schools need to incorporate mental health and substance abuse treatment in their offerings. “If you address physical, emotional, and academic needs, you take a much more holistic approach to literacy,” she says.

“I believe it takes a village to raise a child,” Chung concludes. “Rachel Lloyd argues that every sexually exploited child should be surrounded by at least eleven adults who love them, and I believe it’s the same for homeless children.”

We think words mean power, and so should you. Through Project Literacy, GOOD and Pearson are building partnerships for a more literate future. Follow the #ProjectLiteracy hashtag and visit good.is or projectliteracy.com to tell us your stories, help us ask the right questions, and take action in your community.

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How A Love Of Reading Helped This Woman Go From Homeless to Harvard