Teen Mom Graduates Debt Free from Ohio State University with Big Plans to Overhaul Foster Care System She Grew Up In

Janel Lanae, a teen mom who grew up in an abusive home, overcame all odds and graduated from Ohio State University, debt-free. She's seen with her daughter Malena, 7. Photo courtesy of Janel Lanae

Janel Lanae, a teen mom who grew up in an abusive home, overcame all odds and graduated from Ohio State University debt-free. She’s seen with her daughter Malena, 7. Photo courtesy of Janel Lanae

An Ohio mother who found herself pregnant at age 15 has defeated all odds and graduated from Ohio State University. She doesn’t owe a penny either.

According to NBC News, 23-year-old Janel Lanae of Columbus grew up in an abusive household in Dayton. Despite the trouble at home, Lanae maintained straight A’s in school. When she reached fifth grade, her teacher nominated her for Ohio State University’s Young Scholars Program, the news site reports.

Per the program’s website, “the Ohio State University Office of Diversity and Inclusion Young Scholars Program is a comprehensive pre-collegiate and collegiate program designed to enhance the academic, personal, and career development of its Scholars.” YSP specifically seeks to increase the number of of first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students at Ohio State and complement the instruction students receive during the school year.

“My greatest joy has always been my education,” Lanae told NBC News.

The young student worked with her teacher to complete the program’s required essay and persuaded her mother, who grappled with alcohol and substance abuse, to file the form, according to the news site. To remain in the Young Scholars Program, Lanae had to maintain a 3.3 grade point average or higher and attend bi-weekly meetings and sessions at Ohio State.

Life continued to hand the young girl lemons, however, as she was thrust into the foster care system at age 14. A year later, she found out she was pregnant. Lanae’s daughter, Malena, is now 7, NBC News reports.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen pregnancy and birth are critical contributors to high school drop out rates among adolescent females, resulting in 50 percent of teen girls failing to graduate from high school by age 22.

But Lanae proved she was more than the statistical teen mom, as she earned both her high school diploma and college degree, according to NBC News. When she was in high school, however, Lanae found it more difficult to attend the YSP required meetings as she bounced around to different foster homes. According to the news website, the then-high schooler lived in nine foster homes and a group home. Lanae also attended eight different high schools in four cities.

“Nobody wanted me there while I was pregnant,” she said.

Lanae said she was determined to make it to those mandatory meetings because of the program’s potential rewards. According to YSP’s website, scholars who are in good academic standing upon graduation will receive a financial aid package to attend Ohio State University. That financial aid package includes the Young Scholars scholarship, a needs-based award that meets 100 percent of a student’s financial need for a span of eight semesters, as long as they remain in good academic standing once at Ohio State, program directors explained to NBC News.

With the help of Janeisha Finch, the scholar program’s Dayton coordinator, and caseworker Annie Williams, Lanae ended up missing only two or three meetings, according to the news site.

“My foster parents were never willing to drive me back to Dayton two hours back and forth,” Lanae said. “Other caseworkers didn’t care. But Annie would come pick me up, wait for me, take me to get food afterwards because she knew I hadn’t had anything to eat, and watch my daughter while I was in the meeting. She went above and beyond for me, and she’s the reason I majored in social work at OSU.”

The young mother freed herself from the foster care system when she turned 18 and moved herself and her daughter to Columbus to start school at Ohio State. Lanae hit another bump in the road that year, however, when her mother passed away.

“Right before I was about to graduate from high school and emancipate from foster care, my mother took her last breath, and I died right there with her,” she wrote in a Facebook post published May 8. “What more could I handle at 18??!!!”

Lanae then turned to her faith and was able to pull herself together.

Because YSP covered the cost of her studies, all Lanae had to pay for were her car, housing, and daughter Malena, NBC News reports.  Now that she has graduated, Lanae said she plans to make significant changes to the foster care system she grew up in.

“I plan to infiltrate the foster care system,” she said. “I don’t want a typical job, but I have a lot of great ideas I want to put in place for girls in foster care — feed their self-esteem, feed their self-worth, help them truly be prepared for this world, especially if they want to go to college.”

Lanae also credits the Young Scholars Program, Finch and Williams with helping her get where she is today.

“Nobody else cared about my education,” she said. “I had no other consequence if I dropped out and was just another teen mom. But the program cared.”

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