WEST MIAMI-DADE, FLA. (WSVN) - It was a memorable moment for a South Florida student who beat the odds to earn her college diploma, years after a campus organization lent a helping hand when she was homeless.
Vanessa Morales was an enthusiastic student when she first started at Florida International University. “My freshman year, I came into FIU during the summer term. I wanted to start FIU right away, as soon as I could, and everything was wonderful. Everything was great,” she said.
Things took an unfortunate turn the following year. “My sophomore year is when everything pretty much went downhill,” said Morales.
That’s when trouble at home forced Morales to hop from one friend’s couch to another. It got to the point where she didn’t want to bother anyone, so she started sleeping in her car.
“I was actually found in my car sleeping by FIU Police,” she said. “I had all my stuff in the back of the car. I would wait until the gym opened so I could shower and get ready. No one would ever know.”
That FIU officer pointed her in the direction of the university’s Fostering Panther Pride program for former foster children and homeless students. There they helped her get back on track.
“I met Ana, my success coach today, and she told me, ‘We’re going to get you housing,’ and she took me straight to housing,” said Morales, “and at the moment I thought, ‘Wait. It’s not just for tonight.’ She’s like, ‘No, we’re going to move you in today.”
Thanks to Panther Pride, the graduate said, she was able to find employment on campus. “I found a job here on campus, so I don’t need to drive really far. I’ve been able to have a roof over my head, ’cause I didn’t have one for a while,” she said. “I’ve been able to be focused on my studies rather than what I was going to eat today.”
Fast forward to Monday, 7News cameras captured Morales picking up her diploma at FIU’s commencement ceremony. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education.
“I’m so happy! I can’t believe this is happening. I’m really happy,” she said. “It took me five years, but I’m here, and I thank FIU, and Fostering Panther Pride is an incredible program, and I thank my family, who now has been able to use this to come together and learn a lot from this. We’ve been able to build up one another and be a family again — a happy ending!”
Vanessa said she already has had three job offers. She said her future plans include opening a learning center for at-risk and foster youth.
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