Jaimee Joy Allred grew up on the move, her parents locked in a cycle of abuse. Sometimes the family was homeless, always in a different town from one year to the next, with a figurative bridge smoldering in the rearview mirror.
While other kids' parents were taking them to soccer games and music lessons, Allred's mother was warding off punches from the abusive men in her life. Then she escaped into the manic fog of methamphetamine.
The young girl's escape was her school work.
"It was hard trying to keep up in school, but it was the most stable thing I had. I didn't want to live the life my mom lived," said Allred, who graduates Saturday from Westminster College.
One of the few adults Allred connected with as a child lived across the street from her in Salt Lake City. She told the 12-year-old Allred a college education is priceless, and said she wished her own children would have attended Westminster College.
Allred moved away, but she never forgot her neighbor's advice. A decade later, Allred will be awarded a degree in sociology and one of Westminster's highest honors the Neisen R. Bank Memorial Award, reserved for graduates who excel academically while overcoming major challenges.
Many students in Allred's situation rarely make it to college, much less to the finish line in four years. But her odds improved greatly when her California grandparents took her out of foster care to live with them. Between 20,000 and 30,000 teens "age" out of the foster system each year and their prospects are dim. According to a recent study, only half graduate from high school and just 6 percent earn an associate's degree by their mid-20s.
As a college student and campus employee, Allred exhibited a rare level of professionalism, self-discipline and commitment to success, even though she grew up with few role models, said Gary Daynes, interim dean of the college's Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business.
"She has managed to be inspired by the difficulties she faced," said Daynes, a history professor. "That experience hasn't defined her. It is part of who she is but it's not all she is. She will continue to be an activist for people with backgrounds like hers."
Allred exits college with a 3.4 GPA and hopes to pursue a graduate degree. For now, she is looking to land a job in Salt Lake City. Allred worked at the Westminter business school as a receptionist and faculty assistant all four years of college, often supplementing the work with second jobs.
Her senior thesis, which she presented at a conference in San Antonio, was on foster care policy and how it can be reformed to help kids succeed. "At first I wanted to be a social worker. I went through four or five social workers. I had a dream I could make a difference," she said.
Allred's mom began using meth while pregnant with Allred's sister, who was born with a heart defect. As home life became more abusive, her parents lost jobs, got in legal trouble and fled to new towns. Allred lived in Utah and five other Western states, eventually attending 13 elementary schools and five secondary schools.
"I never became attached to people to become friends because I knew we were just going to move," she said.
When the girls' bruises could no longer be ignored, authorities placed them in foster care and barred Allred's mother from having contact until she tested drug-free five consecutive times. After nine months, her mother tested clean. But on a trip to visit her daughters, Allred's mother relapsed and died while driving her car, Allred said.
Allred eventually left Utah to live with her maternal grandfather in Oroville, Calif., and enjoyed stability for the first time in her life. She considered attending college in California, but in the end applied to just one place, the Salt Lake City college recommended by her one-time neighbor.