From homelessness to supporting himself, he’s ready for college

Hard work, online learning help ‘overcomer’ to graduate

Tristen Foley finished his high school education at North Star Academy at Byron Center High School

Tristen Foley had just taken the final exam of his senior year. He stood in the office at Byron Center High School, a place he walked into for the first time at the beginning of the school year. “It feels surreal,” he said, a definite hint of pride in his voice.

It’s been quite a journey for Tristen, who enrolled himself at the district’s Administration Building last fall following a turbulent time period. Difficult family situations had led him to leave home and move by himself from Rockford to Grand Rapids and then to Illinois. Finally, he moved in with a friend in Byron Center.

Because he had been living transiently in several places without a parental figure, Tristen qualified as a homeless youth and had missed about a semester of school his junior year. He needed to catch up on credits and work full time, so he enrolled in North Star Academy, a blended learning program within the high school, where students complete courses online at their own pace with teachers present to offer guidance.

“I knew I had to do something to get my diploma, and here I am today officially done with any schoolwork I had to do and a graduate of the class of 2018,” he said.

This story is part of Grads with Grit, a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring.

But to say getting there took determination is quite an understatement. Tristen’s typical day went like this: Get to school at about 7:30 a.m. and stay until 2:45 p.m. Take the bus home and change clothes. Head to McDonald’s, in Byron Center, and manage a crew of four or five employees until the restaurant closes. Get home around 1 a.m.

“I average four or five hours of sleep daily,” he said. “I have to pay for rent, utilities and food. I do what I’ve got to do, just like a grown adult.”

Tristen, 18, graduates May 24. “I’m just glad to be done. I can finally have a fixed sleeping schedule for once and it’s going to be nice.”

Jenn Price, director of North Star, said Tristen has come a long way.

“He has been amazing to watch. I cannot imagine living without the support of parents, and I know that he has really struggled with having to find a place to fit and to feel like he has a home,” Price said. “We had to work through the importance of work to feed himself and the importance of school.

“He has grown tremendously in figuring life out, figuring how to balance work and school and how to take care of needs and how to communicate.”

Tristen Foley had determination to graduate, despite an unstable personal life

‘I’m a Leader’

Tristen said he plans to “work, work and work” to save money over the next year. While he has already been accepted to Ferris State University, he wants to reapply next year and enroll in 2019 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in construction management. “I want to run my own business. I’m a leader. That is why I’m a manager right now.”

Tristen, who attended Rockford Public Schools until he moved away from home, took wood shop at Rockford High School and attended the construction program at Kent Career Tech Center for part of his junior year. He has a knack for working with wood.

“I built things for my mom and she has kept every single one of them,” he said. He built a walnut coffee table, which he sold, and a lawn chair. Through the Tech Center, he worked on the interior of a house.

Along with wooden gifts, Tristen also wanted to give his mom, Melissa Foley, the fulfillment of a request.

“My mom always asked of me to graduate,” he said. “That has been the one thing she always asked of me: try my best and graduate. Because of her, I knew I had to do something with my life. … She has been my biggest motivation when it comes to this.”

Tristen said life and work experiences are also valuable to him as he looks toward the future. He has worked with customers and employees, learned to multi-task and be organized. He knows what it takes to get things done.

Christy Wierenga, Byron Center High School director of student development, said it’s wonderful to see Tristen working toward his goals.

“He for so long had such and unstable environment,” Wierenga said. “(Now) he’s in a very tight-knit community and program that has allowed him to get his feet under him so he can go out and do the things he wants to do. For the first time, he has self-confidence. It’s all because he started making decisions for himself and has allowed other people to come alongside of him to support and teach him. He’s been extremely receptive to the teaching.”

Wierenga and Price said it has been inspiring to see Tristen start to think past the next high school test or work shift, and into the years ahead.

He has started to dream.

“He is a true overcomer,” Wierenga said. “There has been something in Tristen that is just different. He has hope and he has clung onto that hope, and that has just motivated him to keep putting one foot in front of the other to keep going.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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