This is a great story:
By Jennifer Brooks • THE TENNESSEAN • April 24, 2010
It would be easy to take one look at Kaitlen Howell’s past and write off her future.
Born into a violently abusive home, she was pulled out of school in first grade and never sent back. She spent her teen years bouncing through a series of foster homes and homeless shelters. Damaged goods, some called her.
Howell, Tennessee’s newest Fulbright scholar, graduates from Middle Tennessee State University next week with a double major in biology and German, a nearly flawless GPA, and enough academic trophies and awards to splinter a shelf.
She’ll spend the summer studying for the medical school entrance exams at her parents’ home in Murfreesboro — the parents who stepped forward to adopt her when she was 17 years old. She’ll spend her scholarship year in Germany, studying with a neurologist whose research could save thousands from a deadly type of stroke. She’ll spend the rest of her life trying to make the world a better place than the one she was born into.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. That’s not who you are. Yeah, people took a whole lot from me. But I’m the happiest person I know,” she said, flashing an even wider version of her usual ear-to-ear grin. “Man, I’m alive! I’m 22! How great is that? I never thought I’d live to see 22. I was happy just being alive.”
‘I had a choice’
The Kaitlen Howell who is graduating from MTSU in May is very different from the one who started there 4½ years ago. She walked into her first college classes with a graduate equivalency degree and no idea just how wide the gap was between her and the rest of her classmates.
On the first day of her first general science class, the professor kept waving to the big chart on the wall. The one with all the tiny boxes and letters. The periodic table of elements. She’d never heard of it.
“I didn’t know what an atom was. I wrote it in my notes, A-D-A-M. I had no idea,” she said.
It would have been enough to make almost anyone throw up her hands in despair, walk away, quit. But Howell had survived far worse things than tough homework assignments, and she did what she had always done. She put her head down, gutted her way through and not only survived, but thrived.
“You can always find an excuse,” she said. “For the longest time, I didn’t have a life, I didn’t have a source of hope. But I had a choice. You can choose to get your GED. You can choose to get out of bed today. If you don’t kill yourself today, that’s a choice.”
She had to teach herself how to study. She took 24 credit hours of remedial classes just to get on a par with the rest of the incoming freshmen. She racked up A after A in class after class. In her entire college career, Kaitlen has earned only one B — when she passed her first chemistry class.
She’s the student who asks the good questions in class, listens carefully to the answers and then absolutely ruins the grading curve.
“She loves the learning, and she’s willing to work hard,” said biology professor Gore Ervin, who remembers her performance in one of his embryology classes, where she was not only the top student in the class, but a full letter grade ahead of anyone else. “She clearly has great innate ability. … I’d put her in the top five of all the students I’ve ever taught.”
On top of the staggering 23-hour course load she carried in her final semester as an undergraduate, Howell volunteers her time to anyone who needs it. She tutors, and she works with AIDS patients, with teens in foster care preparing to start college, with victims of domestic violence.
‘I had to start fighting’
Howell spent a lonely, dangerous childhood reading her way through every book she could find. She read To Kill a Mockingbird in first grade. She read The Lord of the Rings. She read the Hardy Boys. She dreamed of turning 18 and earning her freedom. As things turned out, she didn’t have that much time.
“There came a point where my life was literally in danger. I realized that I was going to die if I stayed there,” she said. “I realized I had to start fighting if I wanted to live.”
She was 15 years old when she escaped the abuse and neglect of that home, into the foster-care system and the winding route that would eventually cross her path with Allen and Melanie Howell of Murfreesboro.
It was 2005 when a friend at church first introduced Kaitlen to the Howells, a 40ish professional couple with no children of their own.
Countless older teens age out of the foster-care system without ever finding a family.
Kaitlen’s wait had ended.
“I don’t remember ever having a big discussion about it. As soon as we met her, we knew,” said Melanie Howell, an interior decorator who stepped up to become a first-time mother to a 17-year-old girl. The Lord, she said, had spoken with her about caring for the widows and orphans, and one day, there she was — “like the stork had delivered us a 17-year-old.” For Kaitlen, the experience of joining a real family was almost as disorienting as the leap from first grade to the college chemistry lab.
“The family thing was hard for me. I didn’t know how long it was going to last,” Kaitlen said. Over the years, a few of her many foster families had talked about adopting her, but nothing ever came of it, and each disappointment made an already untrusting young girl even more wary. “It hardened my heart. I just thought people make promises and don’t keep them.”
It took years for her to believe the Howells weren’t going to change their minds about her. It was last year, in fact, that she really started to believe it.
Now, while her friends are rushing to find off-campus housing, eager to live on their own, Kaitlen still lives happily with her parents. She’d never stayed anywhere longer than two years at a time, and when she passed that mark with the Howells, she said, she celebrated.
‘I picked who I am’
There’s plenty of reason to celebrate these days. The Fulbright has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other academic honor, and hers will pay her way to Germany, to the West Saxon University of Zwickau, in fall 2011. There she will be part of the research team looking into a possible link between a small congenital defect that affects a quarter of the population — a tiny hole between the atria of the heart that fails to close in the womb, as it should — and an increased risk of stroke.
She wants to help people, so she’s planning to earn an M.D. She wants to help a lot of people, so she figures she’ll pursue a dual Ph.D. at the same time and become a medical researcher.
A physician can help only the people she can reach with her hands, she figures. A researcher can find a treatment or cure that could save millions of lives at once.
But of all the things she’s proud of in her new life — and she’s been averaging three academic awards ceremonies a week for the past few weeks — she’s most proud of this: her name. She took the Howell name and she gave herself a new first name to go with it. Kaitlen Howell is who she has made herself to be.
“Here’s my life theory. Everything has good and bad. You walk through life and there’s evil and there’s dark, but you can choose to walk through life in the bright times, through the colors,” she said. “I decided I was going to pick what I would let affect me.
“I like who I am. I picked who I am. I picked the whole rainbow.”