Originally printed in the StarTribune
How a Minnesota woman went from homeless in Rochester to an Ivy League degree
By Reid Forgrave Star Tribune NOVEMBER 7, 2021 — 8:42PM
“No one listens to you when you’re poor,” says Sarah Brakebille-Hacke, who bounced around Minnesota’s foster care system as her parents battled mental illness. She’s now a Yale grad and working on a master’s degree at Cambridge University.
When Sarah Brakebill-Hacke was growing up in southeastern Minnesota, just outside Rochester, her hippie mother’s words of wisdom would echo in her mind: “Everyone was once that little baby in the stroller. The question is, ‘What happened to them?’ ”
Brakebill-Hacke heard those words when — as both parents battled mental illness and her father fought a heroin addiction — she bounced around Minnesota’s foster care system. Or later, after becoming homeless, sleeping in stairwells or bathrooms in Rochester’s underground walkway system. Those words would echo as she ate out of gas station dumpsters and, at 17, gave her first baby up for adoption.
And she still hears those words today, at 34, as she settles in at the University of Cambridge in England. She graduated in the spring from Yale University with a degree in global affairs. Her research focuses on informing power brokers how food insecurity impacts civil unrest and regime instability. After getting her master’s degree in human evolutionary biology at Cambridge, where she’s studying the effects of nutrition, food insecurity and generational poverty, she’ll head to Stanford University for a two-year master’s program in international policy. Her long-term ambition is to become an international human rights lawyer and negotiate globally to establish basic human needs — food, shelter, medicine — as a human right.
“All the things that happened that were looked at as bad, it just made me more compassionate, more driven,” she said.
“It made me see injustice in the world. People who have nothing need someone on their side. These people who are voiceless, no money, no representation, they need somebody to represent them, to speak for them.”
The contours of her winding journey are surprisingly simple: She was once that baby in the stroller. Bad things happened to her. Against all odds, she found her way out. And she realized her lived experience made her uniquely qualified to speak up for those whose voices never get heard.
“No one listens to you when you’re poor,” Brakebill-Hacke said.
But people do listen when you have an Ivy League degree.
Hitting the road
At age 17, Brakebill-Hacke seemed to have lost all hope.
She had put her baby boy up for an open adoption, which meant she could continue to have a relationship with him. But the family kept the boy from her, and Brakebill-Hacke broke down.
For three months, homeless in Rochester, she used every drug she could find. She stopped going to school at Rochester Community and Technical College. She lost her job at Taco Bell. She no longer wanted to be part of society: “This world is unjust, it’s cruel, I don’t want to contribute to this society,” she recalled thinking. “I’m going to build a world that’s just and right and outside of here. So I stopped using money. I made hemp jewelry and traded it for labor. And I hitchhiked around the country with a backpack, a tent and my dog.”
For years, she lived a nomad’s life. She’d circle back to Minnesota, stay with her mom for a couple of weeks, then get back on the road. She went wherever the winds took her. She canoed the backwaters of Florida.
She traded labor for room and board. She slept in cars. She held up signs asking for money. She pitched tents in Boulder, El Paso, Flagstaff. She was surprised at people’s kindness: “The universe provides. I’m hungry, and there would be food.”
She was raising two young children and was in a relationship with a man — a good man and a fellow wanderer — when she went into a Walmart somewhere between Seattle and Portland. A woman with a baby on her back was gathering signatures for a petition. Brakebill-Hacke was curious.
The woman got paid a dollar per signature. Some petitions were about lowering gas taxes, others were about stopping animal cruelty. Brakebill-Hacke tried it. She was good at it. The money brought stability to her nomadic life. She went wherever the petitions took her. She petitioned for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, for marijuana legalization in Washington, against human trafficking in California.
“It was the first time in life I had any power,” Brakebill-Hacke said. “To gather signatures and get something on the ballot, force it on the ballot for the people — ‘Wait, people have power? If we can do this, we can do anything!’ And for me, that changed everything.”
Brakebill-Hacke came home and, at age 31, got her associate degree at Rochester Community and Technical College. She got elected president of the student government.
She learned how prevalent hunger was on campus — a 2019 survey found nearly one-third of the college’s students suffered from food insecurity — so she pushed emergency food aid through student government.
The school’s food shelf exploded; the year after Brakebill-Hacke graduated, more than 2,000 students visited, a record.
“One of my first memories of Sarah was her carrying pizza boxes to different places on campus,” said Becca Peine, the school’s director of student rights and responsibilities. “If you’re hungry, you’re not able to learn calculus. Your brain is elsewhere. Having pizza in the learning center, you’re meeting that basic need.”
That legacy lives on. This year, during the pandemic, the campus food pantry has had double the number of visits as the year before.
The school is one of 19 Minnesota colleges to win a LeadMN Hunger Free Campus award. (The award will be granted this month during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.)
“She turns ideas into realities,” said Lydia Hansen, a former classmate. “She came in and said, ‘Let’s get this food shelf really going. Let’s get conversations about food insecurity happening on campus.’ ”
For Brakebill-Hacke, part of the issue was in the basic math. “There’s an overabundance of food in America,” Brakebill-Hacke said. “When I see something needs to be done, it’s just, ‘OK — what do we do to make this better?'”
Looking for root causes
How does a formerly homeless nomad with two children and a community college degree find herself with full-ride scholarships at three of the world’s most prestigious universities?
Simple: She applied. She learned of Yale’s Eli Whitney Students Program, designed for nontraditional undergraduate students. The program was filled with military veterans, but Brakebill-Hacke figured her life’s journey certainly qualified.
The transition to an elite university was difficult, especially with her two kids in tow, “but I adapt well with fires burning around me,” she said. “I’ve always listened to my inner voice, for better or worse.”
Maria Del Mar Galindo, a Yale English instructor who was Brakebill-Hacke’s mentor and adviser, sees her greatest strength as being open to the unpleasant process of learning.
“When she thinks this learning process is uncomfortable, she thinks, ‘I have a higher purpose for this, so I must move past my discomfort, because my aim is to advocate for the vulnerable,’ ” Del Mar Galindo said. “Sometimes I think, ‘What makes you tick, and can I buy some of it?’ ”
When Brakebill-Hacke thinks of her unlikely life journey, two things jump out. One is a sense of wonder that she lived through all the trauma and kept going. The other is a sense of responsibility to others who rarely have a voice. “I want to be a representative of impoverished people globally,” she said. “Food insecurity and injustice against impoverished people … are timeless global issues. There’s a root. And I’d like to find that root.”