FORWARD is a series from Student Affairs featuring Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have faced, overcome, or learned from life's obstacles and setbacks. FORWARD aims to normalize the conversation about hardships we endure to encourage resilience.

This is home.

Hokies say the phrase with pride. After two foster homes, five different high schools, and extensive personal trauma, sophomore Breanna Ellis also says the phrase with gratitude and hope.

“If Virginia Tech was a person, they would be patting me on the back,” said Ellis, a first-generation student who is a recipient of several grants and the Michael J. Quillen Leadership Scholarship for underrepresented and underserved students from southwestern Virginia. “Everyone is so welcoming and supportive, and there are so many opportunities.”

Ellis resides in the French House of the Mozaiko global living-learning community to soak in different cultures and works with Virginia Tech Dining Services at West End Market to earn income and gain real-world skills. This is her second year on the job.

“You would think I would be sick of the food by now, but I’m not,” she said with a laugh. “It really is good.”   

She also works on her mental health through services the university offers.

“I see someone at Cook Counseling Center to help me process everything,” Ellis said. “Having the center on campus is really helpful. I know how much mental health can affect your life.”

Mental health can be a lifelong challenge for children and adolescents who endure trauma.

“Both acute and prolonged trauma can have devastating short-term and long-term effects,” said University Distinguished Professor Thomas Ollendick, director of the Child Study Center in the College of Science. Effects can be lessened by a child’s psychological resilience and social support provided by the community.

“Fortunately, effective interventions are available,” he said. “But the recovery is not easy or straightforward.”

This is something Ellis knows firsthand. Her trauma came at home in the form of repeated sexual abuse, neglect, and then separation. She points to the moment she went into foster care in high school as one of her lowest. “One minute I was with my family,” she said. “I had been with them my entire life. And then I wasn’t.”

Ellis was placed with one family and then another. She learned to navigate new relationships and surroundings without familiar comforts or her siblings.

Still, she is grateful. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” she said. “If I wasn’t in foster care, I wouldn’t be here now. I would be living a very different life.”

Ellis shares her story to show others there is hope and people who can help. A speech she gave at her high school graduation ceremony – as one of the top 10 graduates – was on overcoming obstacles. “I got a standing ovation,” she said proudly.

Going forward, she plans to make the most of her Virginia Tech experience to overcome obstacles and transform her life. She eventually wants to work with children who are victims of abuse and finds inspiration in the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

“I want to turn my experiences around to benefit others,” said Ellis, who is majoring in psychology in the College of Science. “Overall, I want to be more in control of my life. I just want to be happy.”

The elements of well-being outlined by Gallup Inc. and Virginia Tech are a guide, and campus support resources have been helpful.

Ellis is grateful for the emotional, social, and financial support. She focuses on physical health through Recreational Sports and serves the community as a volunteer at a local animal shelter to find purpose. She utilizes support systems across campus.

“The Dean of Students Office has been really helpful. And my professors and supervisors are very understanding,” she said.

“It’s our hope that no matter how simple, messy, or complicated the need is, students know our team is invested in helping them flourish and reap the benefits of community that Virginia Tech offers for all,” said Byron Hughes, dean of students.   

The job with Dining Services also provides purpose and community.

“Breanna is an integral part of our team,” said Nancy Barrett, West End Market’s operations manager. Student supervisor and senior Spanish major Mason Robinette describes Ellis as a hard worker who is always kind.

Sometimes, when Ellis is walking back to her room after a shift, she marvels at the impressive stone buildings and the possibilities.

“It makes me smile,” she said. “It really is home.”

Author's Note: At the time of publishing, Ellis has decided to take spring semester 2019 off from academic work to focus on her mental health. She plans to return to her Hokie "home" and to classes this fall. She is still able to earn income thanks to her job at West End Market.

Written by Tammy Tripp. Photos by Christina Franusich.

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