Wolverine Stories: Keira Shae

As told by Andrew Jensen

I am very aware of where I come from, and I still often feel inadequate. UVU made all the difference in my education.

Keira Shae

Photo by August Miller


I was born into poverty. My single, unwed teenage mother was lucky if she and her mother came home from the hospital with me and $20 in their wallet. Poverty was far more than money; books were a luxury, the television was our babysitter. My mother never finished high school, let alone college. After several marriages, children, and subsequent divorces, my mother attempted to care for her five children on her own. With her education level, jobs were taxing — and she was easily let go or replaced. Bipolar depression ruled her world and created tides and troughs in ours. Under the crushing burden of single parenthood and untreated mental illness, my mother self-medicated with methamphetamine. As our home fell apart, I struggled and failed to parent my siblings. When the food stamp card was empty or traded for money, we had a tactic for begging neighbors for some food. If the electricity was turned off, we could warm up next to the gas stove. When the washer’s motor gave out, we learned to wash our clothes by hand. We borrowed phones. We shoplifted. Summers were spent checking chores and the dinner cooking; school years were spent checking homework and tucking it in backpacks the night before. Being the oldest, I was able to find work first. Measly earnings for two weeks could be ransacked with the voracious need for simply milk and bread. I would work my shift and look forward to dinner: a single hot dog in a sandwich bag from home.

No one wants a runaway 15-year-old, but a social worker was able to find a quick overnight placement when the police officer picked me up. I wasn’t sure where my life would go from there, I simply knew I wouldn’t go home. I’m so grateful for my foster family. They had me one night and then kept me for nearly a year. Even when their placement duties ended, they still loved me and checked on me as I entered adulthood. My foster family encouraged me to attend college because that was where I would be able to find success that my family had not had. While I was hopeful, I didn’t think that this was possible — no one in my family graduated high school or college. I had heard wealthy people complain about the expense and the difficulty, so I thought there was no way that I could succeed. I had nothing and was nothing — as a child I read shampoo bottle labels when I was bored to tears on summer vacation.

I had heard about Utah Valley University but didn’t know much. I parked in the student parking lot, not having any idea about how to pay for parking. I wandered through campus until I found the Academic Counseling Center. I just assumed I could step onto campus and I would have it all figured out. And what did I know? The ignorance of my poverty-stricken childhood was apparent. Fortunately, that wasn’t far off: I met Susan Stroud at her desk right when I walked in. She was an academic counselor on campus, and she even handed me a parking validation sticker. Susan took me by the hand and walked me to the registration computer, and then to a scholarship office. Susan introduced me to a few of her connections as we marched through this building or that hallway. She taught me how to apply for scholarships right there and then. I had to finish traveling across campus, going from office to office following the course laid out by an introductory pamphlet. It was a difficult process, but it was made vastly easier by personal care. I was also grateful to my foster family, who took me in through my first year at the university.

All during my first semester, I was sure I was going to fail. Attentive professors helped me through this new experience and all the anxieties that came with it. I was incredulous to find that I not only passed, but I got better-than-average grades. Then came the next semester, and my confidence grew. At that point, I was fairly certain I could earn an associate degree, even if it meant spending every evening I wasn’t working in the Math Lab. I felt immense pride when my degree was sealed on that diploma. Though I desired a bachelor’s degree next, I was sure that my upper-division classes would have me flat on my face. My final upper classes of my bachelor’s degree in behavioral science were certainly difficult, but I was able to manage the workload. Soaring from my success in that class, I wondered out loud to a professor of mine if I could get a graduate degree. The professor of this class, who I admired, told me with gravity and sincerity that I could do it. As someone who had come from nowhere, hearing that from someone who had gotten their own graduate degree, I started believing in myself. Imposter syndrome was disintegrating before my eyes.

Getting an education changed my life. I met people from all different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses with a variety of ideas. I also met my husband while here at school. We have three sons now. I want each of them to enjoy lifetime learning, however that’s accomplished. I love that UVU has technical and academic programs. I have one son who doesn’t care to sit around and read, but he’s good with his hands and has impressive spatial reasoning skills. I love that UVU is flexible and has options for everyone.

It took me seven years, but I finally graduated UVU as Outstanding Student of my college, with honors. The nonprofit work that I’ve been able to do and the jobs that I’ve gotten have all been because of the connections I made at UVU. I did get into graduate school; I’ll finish up my master’s soon. I was able to publish my own book in 2018, How the Light Gets In: A Memoir, with editing help and support from my UVU professors.

I am very aware of where I come from, and I still often feel inadequate. UVU made all the difference in my education. The skills I learned here extend beyond the classroom and have helped me in many facets of my life. I now know not just how to ask the right questions, but that I have a right to ask questions at all. Not just that there are answers, but that it’s OK to find your own answers; it is in the search for the answers that we are living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life. Formal and structured education gave me a framework to explore and do my own searching, at my own, sometimes limping, pace. No matter who you are or where you’re from, there is a place for you at UVU.