Against heavy odds
Ecampus grad Sarah Price uses education to create a path to a better life
By Tyler Hansen
Success for Sarah Price could be measured simply by the fact that she survived her childhood, a period she calls "the black hole." What she is about to do – graduate from Oregon State University – is the definition of a pipe dream come true.
When asked about her past, Price recalls hunger, sifting through government-issued food with her younger sister, Mandy, to scrape together a cake frosting and peanut butter sandwich, or some other strange concoction of “disgusting and extremely unhealthy food.”
She remembers moving 30 times by her 15th birthday, seeing her siblings sleep in a crammed laundry room, having electricity thanks only to the long, orange extension cord running from the neighbor’s house.
But what motivated Price was the fact that no one in her family ever graduated from high school, a crippling reality that never prevented them from promising Sarah and her siblings a lavish lifestyle.
“My whole childhood, my parents said, ‘We’re gonna win the lottery,’ and I honestly thought we were going to win,” Sarah, 26, says now. “That was their plan. I thought we just had to hold on until that day came.
“But I learned that you can’t live life that way. Good things aren’t going to fall into your lap. You have to make it happen for yourself.”
If anyone were destined for failure, it was Price. Out of nothing, she became the embodiment of self-made success, and now she is on the cusp of earning a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies after taking classes online through OSU Ecampus.
The thirst for education, she says, is precisely what guided her out of poverty.
Price had a front-row seat to her parents’ perpetual struggles as they hopped from one job to the next and one town after another in Oregon and Washington during her childhood. They were occasionally homeless, and their lottery numbers never hit.
It wasn’t until middle school that Sarah began to notice just how destitute her family was. She and her siblings often lacked adequate clothing, which was especially torturous for a teenager who wanted to wear brand-name items like her classmates.
“What I did,” Price says now with a chuckle, “was take the old Tommy Hilfiger clothes that someone had given away, and I’d cut off the labels and sew them on to the clothes that actually fit me.”
Somehow, Price was settling in nicely at West Albany High School, located 12 miles from the OSU campus. She turned 16 in 2002 and became motivated to follow in a friend’s footsteps by accelerating her studies and graduating early.
But then her mom proposed a plan that would take the family to California. Price, fed up with the aimless lifestyle, wanted no part of it.
“I told her I wasn’t going to uproot everything I had going for myself in school to follow her around the country,” she said. “So she left, and I stayed.”
Price was homeless again, this time on her own as a high school sophomore. She was unsure where her next meal would come from – a familiar reality – but she was most concerned with finding a reliable way to get to school every day.
The only person she could count on was herself.
Whatever fear Price had about living on her own was replaced by a desire to accomplish something meaningful, so she lost herself in her studies, taking day and night classes to keep herself on pace for early graduation.
Eventually she got a full-time job at a laundry facility and, through some not-so-legal maneuvers, rented her own apartment at age 17.
Price worked weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then walked a couple miles to night school, where she studied until 9 p.m. There was genuine stability in her life for the first time, and graduation was around the corner.
Then she got pregnant.
“I could’ve freaked out about it, but I don’t spend a lot of time freaking out about things,” Price says. “My attitude toward it was, ‘Oh, well. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to keep going,’ and that’s what I did.”
Undeterred and five months pregnant, she received her high school diploma in 2003 – one year ahead of schedule. It was a milestone in her life, but she was already fixated on college.
There was a slight problem, though: Price was poor. Shortly after giving birth to a boy named Noah, she bought a stroller on layaway from a used store. It cost $26, and it took two months to pay for it.
College seemed like too ambitious a venture, but it wasn’t wise to bet against Price.
Ecampus, and a way forward
The joy brought about by her new son was enhanced two years later when she was admitted to OSU. Price enrolled in classes on OSU’s Corvallis campus, but her studies were plagued by various stops and starts. She gave birth to daughter Lilly in 2007 and tried to juggle life as a single, working mom and college student. It didn’t always work well.
At every turn, life presented another barrier between Price and her work as a liberal studies major, but nothing fazed her. Not the failed relationships. Not the persistent poverty. Not the constant stress.
Suddenly, she was 1,000 miles away from Corvallis, and Andrew’s work kept him away from home for 24-hour shifts – meaning three young kids needed her constant attention.
Thanks to OSU Ecampus, Price didn’t miss a beat.
“I don’t know if I could have continued going to school without Ecampus,” she says. “Stay-at-home moms can finally advance their education. It still requires a lot of hard work, but if you have the will to do it, Ecampus can be the way.”
Her grades soared. Once a middling student with a 2.1 GPA, Price now boasts a 3.2 and posted a 3.96 last winter. While taking an average of 15 credits per term, she has made OSU’s honor roll three times in the last two years.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with Sarah while she was on the upswing, and I didn’t really have the impression that she had initially struggled,” said liberal studies advisor Ashleigh Stubblefield. “She and I never discussed her past except for that she was raising children, working and going to school full time.
“It’s a testament to her success that I never thought she had overcome so much and that she seemed like a ‘regular’ student.”
The dream, in reach
It’s hard for Price to keep the excitement about graduation at bay. Through nonstop disappointment in her childhood, she instinctually stopped expecting good things to happen to her.
She sees this as a good thing. It means she never coasts to the finish line, forcing her to work diligently until a goal is realized.
“One of our first conversations early on when we were dating was about how important education is, so she’s always been very driven,” says husband Andrew, who met his wife in a class at Linn Benton Community College in 2008. “Graduation is all that hard work paying off. It’s been incredible to witness her accomplish so much and be recognized for it. It’s been all desserts for her lately.”
And Price continues to set herself up for success while looking for ways to help others live better a life. She volunteers for the Human Rights Campaign of Los Angeles, and she’s also a mentor in a program on the military base in Miramar, Calif., that helps families acclimate to the military lifestyle. Her goal is to land a job as a human resources manager or perhaps a domestic violence counselor.
She has become a model of success for her children, and she and sister Mandy have remained close – “We’re best friends,” Price says – through all of life’s turbulence. And even her previously disconnected family in Oregon has taken notice of her success. They’ve showered her with support as OSU’s commencement nears, and they’re making an effort to celebrate properly.
“My aunt is having a barbecue for me in Corvallis when we’re up there, and I cried about that because I was so excited that someone thought to do that for me,” she said. “For a lot of people, of course their family would throw them a graduation party. But it’s not a given for me. I wasn’t expecting it.”
As much as anyone, Price has earned the right to happiness. But she knows that grand expectations are no substitute for hard work. When she walks across the stage and receives her diploma this week in Corvallis, it will be a moment of triumph in the face of terrible odds.
Lottery winners should be so lucky.
“I’ve always had goals for my future, and I knew school would be the key,” she says. “Getting my degree is another step in making sure my kids have a better childhood than I did. That makes it all worth it.”