Teacher helps student forge tough path to college diploma

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- This really shouldn't be happening. Statistically, as a foster kid, Gina Pearson was more likely to wind up behind bars than under a mortarboard. And yet here she is, graduating from Rutgers University in New Jersey with a degree in social work -- with a Master's ahead of her and so much baggage behind her.

See, Gina didn't live in just one foster home.

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Gina Pearson
CBS News
"I would just always act out or something, and then I would either get kicked out of the home, or I would just run away or something like that," she says.

And how many times did that happen?

"A lot, like thirty," she says.

Thirty foster homes, from first grade right through high school, where freshman math teacher Cherylyn Straubmuller remembers her behavior all too well.

"She had her own voice, wanted to be heard," Cherylyn says. "She was rough at first. She was very rough at first. She's in the classroom and the next thing I know, I get hit upside the head with a golf ball. ... She threw a golf ball in my direction and hit me in the head."

And that was just one episode. Cherylyn had dozens of other reasons to suggest Gina for expulsion, but instead, she took a different tack.

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Cherylyn Straubmuller
CBS News
"She sent me an email and she asked me to babysit the kids," Gina says. "I think she just saw something that I didn't even see in myself."

Saw it and cultivated it, long after Gina was out of her class.

"She was so consistent in sitting with me every day, even though she may have had something else to do," Gina says. "And we would just talk. She kind of helped me find myself."

Cherylyn encouraged Gina to buckle down, talked her into going to college, and the rest -- is future.

"I'm so proud of her, I really am so proud," Cherylyn says. "She made her own way. She realized what brains she had and she finally used it. That's the best part about it."

This graduation season, every kid under a cap and gown should be able to point to at least one person who made it all possible. And if they're as wise as their degrees suggest, they will take Gina's advice -- to not just say thank you to that person, but to show thank you.

"Continuing to strive for success and for greatness -- that is my thank you to her," Gina says.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, email us.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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