Wichita State News
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Samantha Allen, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering this spring, worked at a table display for NIAR at the May 9 College of Engineering Open House.

Graduate story: from foster care to Shocker alum

Monday, June 30, 2014

As a young child, Samantha Allen carried a secret fear. Though a strong student and well-behaved, she worried that she would somehow misstep and be sent home from school.

And Allen’s home was no place for a child to be.

Born into a family where drugs, alcohol, violence and abuse were the norm, Allen considered school and schoolwork to be her sanctuary, developing into something of a whiz in math and science.

Today, Allen is a graduate of Wichita State University and a bona fide mechanical engineer with a bright future, and she’s quick to give the credit for her achievement to the wisdom and love of a volunteer mom and dad.

Allen’s luck turned when she was removed from her nightmare childhood by the state and placed in the foster care system. Not that it was an easy road: She says in foster care, she spent time in 38 states by the age of 12.

“As a foster kid, you have no control,” Allen said. “You have no choice about when you’re moving, who you’re moving in with, how many siblings you’re going to have, when you’re going to move again – you have no control over your own life.”

Allen was almost 13 when she met her final foster family. She was in the “I don’t need anybody” mode most foster kids enter as teenagers, so it took a long time for her to adjust. Her new family was kind and understanding, however, and eventually Allen realized she’d never have to go anywhere else again – that she was where she belonged. It took four years before Allen could call her new mother “Mom.”

The moment was bittersweet. That was just before her junior year at Maize High School; the same year her new mom died.

Moving on

Allen hasn’t always been comfortable talking about her past, but because of her friends and the people she calls family now, she has learned to cope and open up.

The summer she graduated from high school, Allen spent time volunteering with an evangelical organization called “World Impact,” whose summer camps helped kids like her make better choices. She became interested in nonprofits and social work and considered pursuing an internship with the group. College wasn’t in her plans.

Bypassing college, however, was not acceptable to her dad.

“My dad taught me that you can’t rely on a guy or the government or any other system to get you through life,” Allen said. “You can only rely on yourself. I didn’t know why I should go to college; I had no idea what I’d even do.”

Allen’s dad pointed out some of the things she’d done in her childhood, including building her first functional robot at age 13 – she’s built four others since then. Allen was one of those kids who took apart household appliances to see how they worked, including the television, which she insists still worked even after finding a leftover part.

Again following her dad’s advice, she decided to enroll at Wichita State’s College of Engineering, which boasts some of the country’s best research facilities.

As a student, Allen worked at WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) in the Environmental Testing Labs, where she built equipment to test customer products.

“I get paid to break things,” Allen said, “or sometimes even blow them up. It’s really fun and a lot of learning, but I think it’s important for products be tested for flaws. That’s what I want to do, even if I don’t get to break stuff doing it.”

Although her time at Wichita State is behind her now, Allen’s final year was difficult. Last December, Allen’s dad passed away. In a lot of ways, her success in college has been a tribute to the selfless love her mom and dad invested in her.

“Growing up in the foster care system, I never felt accepted by anybody,” she said. “When I finally found my family, there was complete acceptance, and they made sure I knew it.”

For those who struggle with a difficult past as she has, the best advice Allen can give to is to get the education that will help you.

“It doesn’t matter what you went through when you grew up,” she said. “What matters is how you come out of it. If you can see the hope of creating your own future, you can get through anything.”

Allen learned that from her dad, too.

“Once you’re out of the past,” she said, “the future is all yours.”

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Created on Monday, June 30, 2014; Last modified on Friday, July 11, 2014