On Sunday, Jenn Collazo '21 will graduate with a degree in social work. She wants to help children living through traumatic circumstances. She wants to show them a path out. Her path.
It was just a mattress, and not a particularly fancy one. But Jenn Collazo '21 remembers how she felt when she bought it. It was mine. Earlier that day, her landlord handed her the keys to her first apartment. It was mine. For years, Collazo wasn't necessarily homeless, but she didn't have a permanent home. She didn't have anything that was hers. She was a high school dropout, no longer in foster care, and bouncing between unhealthy relationships. She had three bags of clothes and $120 to her name. And she decided...
"I was tired of knowing my potential and not living up to it."
Collazo's mom was an addict. She deeply loved her children and wanted to protect them, but the disease always won. By the time Collazo was six, she was caring for her younger sisters, but only when they had the same roof over their heads in Brooklyn. When their mom was evicted, Collazo went into foster care; her sisters were scattered among family. Collazo gave up on school when she was 15, and for the next six years, she would make bad decisions and then escape to the next bad decision. It was an endless loop of self-destruction and self-loathing. It took an amazing amount of courage and faith to break the cycle. She took her bags of clothes and her $120 and moved upstate to the Job Corps Center in Glenmont.
Job Corps offers housing, training, and an education to highly motivated young adults. Within months, Collazo earned her GED. She enrolled in Hudson Valley Community College and graduated with an associate's degree in criminal justice. She got her apartment (and her mattress), she invited her sisters to come live with her and work on their own education, she got a job, she got promoted... and she was just getting started.
"I thank God every day. Even if I'm just driving in my car, I'm not here to ask God for anything, I just want to say thank you."
Collazo was promoted to branch operations manager at a security company and oversaw 300 security guards. It was a great job, but a demanding one. She was a single mom and needed a more consistent schedule. A client worked with a Public Safety officer at Siena and knew there was an opening. Collazo came here in 2017 to work, not study. Two years later, she was ready to do both.
Collazo enrolled in the social work program, and took classes by day (including summer and winter), while working full-time as a Public Safety officer at night. Her mom, now clean, moved in with her daughters and is helping to raise Collazo's two children: 4-year-old Gabriel and 18-month-old Julius. Collazo's now engaged to Julius's dad, and on Sunday, she'll earn her bachelor's degree. During a special ceremony on May 21, President Chris Gibson and Provost Maggie Madden provided Gabriel with a "degree" of his own.
Both of Collazo's sisters got their education, too. One works for the Red Cross, the other works for Amazon, and they're always thanking their big sis for bringing them to the Capital Region and paying the bills. They still all live together, the sisters and their mom and Collazo's boys, plus her fiance and a four year old niece - not because they need to, but they're making up for lost time. There are plenty of struggling families, hurt by addiction, or poverty, or something else. Collazo brought hers back together... she wants to use her degree in social work to save others.
"I love my mom to death. She always tried. I was a mom to my sisters when I needed to be. Now I can be their sister again, and my mom can have the relationship with her grandchildren that she never had with us. That's why we're all together. The bond we have now is stronger than I ever could have imagined."