From homelessness to a PhD, Philly woman flips the script

How’s this for fighting the odds? One Philly woman now working on her doctorate was, just years ago, literally homeless.

Alexandra Cruz never had a place to call homefor a large portion of her childhood, sleeping on couches, mattresses on the floor and attending six different schools by the age of 11.

“Had my mom had any assistance from the fathers of her children, we may have been able to combat the threat of homelessness,” Cruz said. “My mother was always working more than one job and paying for childcare, rent, clothing for growing children, etc., which created astronomical bills and stress for a woman suffering from bipolar disorder.”

Cruz’s mother gave birth to her third child by the age of 19 and as the eldest, Alex was always the forced babysitter. She thought her future was dismal.

“I was forced to become an adult before I even hit puberty. My sisters were always my responsibility, regardless of where we were. Having to constantly worry about whether or not your mom ate today is something that makes you feel enslaved to homelessness,” Cruz said. “She maxed out a number of credit cards just to keep us fed and would skip meals to make ours stretch,” Cruz said. “She was supported to an extent by family members (five siblings), but she wasn’t always comfortable telling them exactly where we were struggling.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children, or 1 out of 3, live at home without their biological father, which increases the risk of poverty by four times.

“I remember seeing my mom cry about having to choose to spend her money on lunch for her kids over paying for medication that balances the chemicals in her brain,” Cruz said. “I felt lucky to have my family but I could never explain the feelings of hopelessness I often felt.”

What Cruz described as being “in the right place at the right time” led to her enrollment at Milton Hershey School, where she was exposed to strong, successful female role models who made her believe. She said she learned about self-love, lessons about the importance of failure, professionalism and more. It was also the first place where she saw women of color have success in business, which motivated her to have ambitions of her own.

“I remember not being able to go home sometimes because of my mom being homeless again,” Cruz said, referring to frequently babysitting her sisters. “I often was blind to what was happening at home because Milton Hershey School gave us the opportunity to be kids and enjoy what was left of my adolescence.”

With a scholarship from the Milton Hershey School, Cruz now has an undergraduate and graduate degree from Temple University, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Affairs and Community Development at Rutgers. 

Her experience tutoring and working at after-school programs at both public and private grade schools opened her eyes to how a quality education can set students up for success or failure. Her goal is to one day open a school like Milton Hershey in Philadelphia as well as homeless shelters that give children the tools they need to achieve their own goals.

“Understand that no matter who you are, you’re looking at someone who is homeless from a place of privilege,” Cruz said. “If you choose to hand money to someone, understand that you’re giving them that money. It’s not your place to define to them where that money should be spent or on what. They may need food, they may need a shelter, they may need a fix to get them through the night without contemplating suicide. Judging someone else’s struggle doesn’t make you a good person … [but] if you have an extra dollar to spare or some food, by all means do so.”

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