How this homeless teen got to college

Aubriana Mency at her graduation. (Sheariah Israel)
Aubriana Mency at her graduation. (Sheariah Israel)
Before her father died of bone cancer when she was in second grade, Aubriana Mency promised both her parents she would try as hard as she could in school — no matter what. Even though she kept her promise through unbearable periods of grief and several instances of homelessness, the recent Fenway High School graduate still finds it a little surreal that she’ll be attending college this fall with a full-ride for her first year.

“After my dad died when I was in second grade, I got set back,” she said. “We became homeless a few years later, so for a long time college wasn’t even a thought in my mind. That’s why it’s still kind of crazy to me that I am where I am now.”

Mency, a 19-year-old with a bright smile, will attend Hampshire College, where she plans to major in theater and sociology. She’s also a recipient of the college’s James Baldwin scholarship, which provides a full year of college courses to students from underserved communities, and also covers the cost of fees, books, supplies, housing, and meals. While this award only applies for the first year, scholars receive “generous financial support” for the rest of their time at the school.

“I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so this program is pretty amazing,” she said. “I’ll move in a little earlier, have an orientation with other kids in the program and advisors, and it’ll help with my transition to take off some of the stress.”

Mency’s mom, Diane Simmons, said the family struggled after Mency’s father died. They cared for him at home, and Mency missed months of school. After his death, the medical bills kept pouring in, and they lost their house. Mency and her mom said they were “in it together” from then on, moving from house to house until they were both able to get into a shelter.

“We stayed almost five years in the shelter,” Simmons said. “I know a lot of kids in [her] situation don’t usually excel because they’re so focused on [their] living situation, and Aubriana has had a lot of ups and downs. She needed to go see a therapist because she had anxiety about everything going on, but she didn’t allow our situation to deter her from focusing on school.”

When Mency was in high school, Simmons was able secure Section 8 housing, but soon made too much money in her job to keep her place in the program. Just after they moved into a market-rate apartment in Dorchester, Simmons lost her job and they could no longer afford it. They were then forced to live apart for Mency’s junior year because they couldn’t secure housing for both of them, as well as Mency’s two older siblings, who had recently moved back to the area.

“As unfortunate of a situation as it is, we have gotten a lot of assistance,” Simmons said. “I don’t know if I could’ve given her all these opportunities she’s going to have for her future if we weren’t where we are right now. Education has always been very important, though, and she knows if you want things in life you have to work for them.”

Despite all she was going through, Mency devoted her energy to getting involved in school, and soon became what her college advising coordinator Liz Beal calls a quiet leader, someone who is confident in herself, but who always takes the time to listen to others. She joined the step team when she was a freshman and became captain by the time she was a senior. She was also a member of the school’s LGBT group, Spectrum, as well as the school’s poetry team. Her passion, however, has always been theater, and finding a theater program was a priority for her during her college search.

“When she started getting all these great offers, her humanities teacher said to me, ‘This restores my faith in humanity,’” Beal said. “She has tremendous dignity, and is so deserving of all the things that come to her. She told me she wants to write and direct plays, and she’s one of those people who says she’s going to achieve something and leaves me with no doubt that she’ll do it.”

Mency, who is now staying with her mom at a friend’s house in Revere, will spend the summer working in the box office for the Emerson College arts department before leaving for school. Even though she will miss her, Simmons said she’s overjoyed at the opportunity her daughter has been given. Mency is proud of herself, too.

“I had promised my dad and my mom I would try my best in school no matter what,” she said. “That became easier because I wasn’t just making a promise for them, I was making it for myself. When you struggle for a while, you realize that you want more for yourself. I’m ready to make that happen.”