“The idea of college was always just an idea.”
These days, college is very much a reality of Destiny Jedlicka’s life.
This month, Jedlicka begins her final class at Orlando’s Valencia College in order to complete her associate’s degree in general studies. Earlier this fall, she also started coursework at Rollins College in Winter Park, where she is pursuing a business degree with a minor in occupational studies.
“I’m kind of nervous because it seems like the intensity of the classes is going to be more of a challenge, but I’m also really excited because I feel like I’ve gotten into a routine,” Jedlicka said.
Jedlicka, 29, welcomes the structure of coursework after bouncing back between Florida and her native South Carolina for much of her life.
Growing up in the foster care system like Jedlicka has, family plans and living arrangements can change often, making even the short-term future hard to predict. Planning far ahead in the future for college is a different matter altogether.
Jedlicka first entered the foster care system at age 8, averaged several schools a year throughout her childhood, and aged out of foster care during her senior year of high school.
More than a decade later, Jedlicka admits that continuing her studies was not at all a priority during that period of her life.
“I was 18 during my senior year, I’d been working since I was 16, so I decided to get my own place,” Jedlicka said. “I wasn’t being as responsible as I should’ve been. I was focused more on paying my bills at the time than pursuing my education.
A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Jedlicka moved to Central Florida with her family just before she entered the 3rd grade. Jedlicka said her mother suffered from mental illness and her father struggled with drug addiction. As a result, she was initially placed in the state’s foster care system at age 8.
What followed were a tumultuous few years that saw Jedlicka bounce between homes in Seminole and Orange counties, along with various stints with family members in South Carolina. It culminated with Jedlicka’s mother and father signing over their parental rights prior to her beginning high school.
“I had re-entered the (foster care) system when I was 12 years old, and I had to come back to Florida because I was a Florida case,” she said.
Jedlicka’s high school years were similarly unsteady. She attended multiple high schools during her senior year, ending up at Lyman High School in Longwood. Two years earlier, she’d gotten an administrative job for a local pest control business, so she put her education on the backburner to try and strike out on her own after turning 18.
After moving back to South Carolina the following year, Jedlicka attempted to return to her studies. She earned her GED and enrolled at ITT Technical Institute in Greenville before dropping out during her first semester to care for her ailing stepmother.
Jedlicka eventually moved back to Florida and decided to give college another try. She enrolled at Valencia College three years ago and found the staff at the school particularly welcoming for a non-traditional student who hadn’t been in a classroom in several years.
“I met with a counselor there, and they were just a really big help overall,” she said. “They helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my career.
“It was a really nice experience because when you’re a first-time student, you’re not really savvy at all.”
Jedlicka is paying for her current education thanks to a combination of institutional scholarships (from Rollins), a Florida Resident Access Grant, a partial Pell Grant, and both subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
“It’s kind of a necessary evil,” Jedlicka said of taking out loans. “They’re there to help you, and it’s an avenue that lets me do what I need to do.”
Jedlicka regrets not being able to take part in the Florida Department of Children and Families’ tuition and fee exemption program, which offers fee exemptions to children formerly in DCF’s custody if they meet certain requirements. The waiver is authorized at public universities and colleges in the Florida College System, along with school district workforce education programs.
Throughout her high school years, Jedlicka worked with a case worker for a private company who advised that she could participate in the tuition and fee exemption program at any point in her life. In reality, a 2010 change in Florida law expanded the exemption program — which was previously limited to the first four years following high school graduation — to accept students until they reach age 28.
“There was a lot of confusion at the time about the waiver. Schools were misinterpreting it, case workers were misinterpreting it, everybody was misinterpreting it,” Jedlicka said. “I was pretty young, and we didn’t Google everything back then.”
Jedlicka currently lives in Orlando and works full time as an HR assistant for a pest control business in the area. She has been married for six years and has a 3-year-old son named Jacob. She credits her family for stabilizing her life and spurring her back into the classroom for good.
“I want to do better for myself financially,” Jedlicka said.
This story is part of Florida College Access Network’s “Pathway Series”, a year-long project that seeks to highlight the diversity of experiences students face as they pursue postsecondary degrees. Each student will be profiled at the start of the school year, during the fall, in the spring, and during the summer following the conclusion of their first year.