From finding herself a 20-year-old single mother with only a second-grade education who had just received custody of six younger siblings, she's gone to being named among the winners of USA Today's 2013 All-USA Community College Academic Team, and being cited as a Coca-Cola New Century Scholar, an honor awarded to the highest scoring student in each state. She graduated this year from Bluegrass Community and Technical College with a 4.0 GPA and associate degrees in Science and Arts. Intrigued? This is the story of Ebony Nava.
Tom Martin: Ebony, let's begin with where you grew up.
Nava: I was born in Indiana. My parents moved to California and then from California we found ourselves in Kentucky.
Martin: And where in Kentucky?
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Nava: We first lived in Crockett, Ky. It's outside of West Liberty. And from there we moved around somewhat and came to Georgetown. My father was working at Toyota. I left home when I was 17. I was homeless for a while and then I started working on my own — just getting any jobs I could, being completely independent. The position I was in when I got custody, I just had my own son, I was living in my own apartment. Actually, when I had my son, I had a near death experience and I realized that the time to make and take any action needs to be now, so that was my main motivation for trying to get custody.
Martin: And, at that point were you living in Lexington?
Nava: I was living in Lexington. But when I got custody, I moved back to Georgetown into a house that some of the social workers and other people had helped us find. It was a four-bedroom house. It was great.
Martin: And so, at that point, what was the age range of your siblings?
Nava: Six to 16.
Martin: How was it that you came to be 20 years old with only a second-grade education?
Nava: How I got in the situation, I don't think most people realize can happen in the United States. We did everything that was required of us — or my mother did, to make sure that we were compliant with home education laws. But in reality, no one checks up to see if any education is going on. We were basically flying under the radar the whole time.
Martin: So you were home-schooled?
Nava: We were technically home-schooled, but it's not like we were actually getting an education.
Martin: Why did you seek custody of your brothers and sisters?
Nava: There was physical abuse and emotional abuse going on. But the reason that I was awarded custody was mainly for the educational neglect.
Martin: How did you manage to head such a large family at such a young age while at the same time basically speed-reading your way through grade school, high school, and into a post-secondary education?
Nava: I didn't immediately go and try to start my education, get my GED or start college when I first got custody. As far as the responsibility of taking on the children, I didn't look at it as difficult because growing up in that home, I was already in the role of being responsible for the children. So, I think it was actually easier in some ways when I got custody. I'm also lucky because they were all so relieved to get out of the situation that they had been in that they were more willing to work towards some common goal. They also didn't have any education, so they were so excited to get into school and to actually start learning things themselves. My sister at the time was 12 and she didn't know how to read. We were all so caught up in just lots of new things. It was a whole new life for all of us.
Martin: And by your example did you inspire in them this desire to go to school to get a formal education?
Nava: I would definitely say that my desire for excellence in my education is setting an example for them and they really look up to that.
Martin: So what did that GED do for you? What happened as a result?
Nava: I was encouraged to get my GED by a family counselor I've been seeing. When I was meeting with her I didn't believe in myself at all. I thought, 'I'm 20 now. The time for me to ever get an education is over.' She really encouraged me to, at the very least, get my GED. I was taking classes at the Scott County Adult Education Center and the instructor there was very encouraging, as well. So, I was like, I'll see where this goes. I took the exam the first cycle that came up — some people took multiple cycles — and I found out on graduation day that I had passed my exam with honors, which I didn't even know you could do! I really surprised myself. So when my family counselor brought up getting into community college, I actually considered it.
Martin: You uncovered something in yourself that you didn't even know was there?
Martin: Have you thought about what it is down there inside of Ebony Nava that pushed you to do this?
Nava: I think about this a lot. I think there's a fundamental curiosity that I have. And, I've learned how to learn. So, when you learn how to learn and you're curious, I don't think there's any stopping you.
Martin: Where are you going next?
Nava: I'm definitely going to a four-year institution but as far as exactly where I'm going to go, it's to be determined.
Martin: And that could be away from here, possibly.
Martin: Your siblings, they'll be okay?
Nava: I do take them into consideration.
Martin: How does that affect your decision about where you might go?
Nava: Keeping my siblings is my number one priority. ... There is definitely a tension between what I want and what I know they need. So when it comes down to it, when I took the responsibility of taking custody of them, I realized that they would have to be my number one priority.
Martin: What do you want to become in life?
Nava: In my dreams. I would work with Doctors without Borders. I would really like that. I'd also like working in labs and research.
Martin: What do you say to others who might be caught up in very difficult circumstances with seemingly little or no hope of improving their prospects in life? What's your message to them?
Nava: You have to be your own motivation. You have to find a reason for yourself to be motivated and then I think you can do whatever you want. That's what's helped me I think because I don't really have a lot of outside family support. I don't have contact with either of my parents. I don't have much contact with extended family. It's helpful to think that I'm a good example to my siblings, but they're going to be 18 one day and they're not going to be looking up to me in the same way. So I also have to find motivation and reasons to do what I do and to excel academically for myself.