Becoming a Maverick was not easy for senior Cornelius Levering, a first-generation college student who battled the foster care system throughout his childhood.
Levering was placed into foster care with his brother when he was about 5 years old. When he was 10 years old, his foster mother adopted him. Even though it seemed like a happy ending, his foster mother brought trauma to Levering’s life.
Levering’s foster mother picked on Levering’s features, which she thought were too “pretty”, forced him to cut his hair and did not comfort him during his reoccurring nightmares.
“I used to run into my brother’s room at night because I felt safer there,” Levering said. “If my adoptive mother … found me in his room with him, she would yell at me, ‘Why are you sleeping in his bed? You have your own damn bed.’ Then she’d slap hard across my face.”
Some memories are too painful for Cornelius to talk about. His brother ran away for fear of being abused.
When Cornelius Levering was 15, his foster mother abandoned him.
“I had no birth certificate or social security card, and because I was a minor I had no way of accessing those documents,” Levering said.
He lived on the streets for about a year, moving from place to place, sometimes staying at extended relative’s homes.
“During this time, I had no guidance. The neighborhoods I was in were not the best environment,” Levering said. “I remember one school night a man asking to see if I could deal dope to him, but I didn’t do those things.”
Even though he was surrounded by gang members, drug dealers and drug users, he went to school every day.
“It was important to me,” he said. “I don’t even know how I got to school because I didn’t have an alarm clock for the longest time. I think I just tried to program myself to wake up in the morning.”
When Levering was 16, he decided to reenter the foster care system. He had nowhere else to go. With the help of social worker Shawn Medrano, Levering was placed into the home of a new foster family. Levering’s foster mother was summoned back to Omaha from Texas because the state found out she abandoned Levering. She was collecting the adoption subsidy.
Levering had to wait in the 6th floor entrance of the Douglas County Courthouse during the hearing. Instead of being charged with child abandonment, his foster mother’s rights were simply relinquished.
“If any other parent would’ve done it, they would be behind bars,” Levering said. “She left a young child. I understood the world, but I didn’t “understand” the world. I was still trying to figure it out.”
The trial was hard for Levering because he still loved his foster mother.
“I looked at her like a mother,” he said. “I didn’t want anything bad to happen to her but she still needed to face the consequences for her actions, and she didn’t have any consequences.”
Levering continued to go to school at Omaha North while he lived with Jackson. After he turned 17, he moved in with a childhood friend’s family because he did not think Jackson was preparing him for adulthood. The family wanted to adopt Levering. He struggled to follow through with the adoption plan even though he loved them.
“My adoptive mother left me, and I didn’t want to be adopted again,” Levering said. “I didn’t want to change my name again.”
Levering moved back in with the foster family his social worker placed him in, and stayed with him until he started his freshman year at UNO, where he received the Susan T. Buffet scholarship. The day Levering had to move into his dorms, his foster father had to work. Levering had to rely on Medrano to help him.
“I had two trash bags and a photo album,” he said. “I don’t think I even walked out with a pillow.”
When he moved into Scott Campus, his art teacher from high school and her husband bought him everything he needed for his dorm.
Freshman year brought its own perils. Levering started suffering from anxiety, an illness he still struggles with today. When he sought outside help, he was told he should quit.
“I was told school isn’t for everyone, and I should dropout,” he said. “…But what was I going to do? I’m half African-American, half Native American. I was already struggling to find jobs without a degree.”
This year, Levering is finishing his communications, PR and advertising degree.
“He’s beat the odds. He’s beat the statistics,” said Taricka Fairgood, the associate director of Multicultural Programs and Outreach. “It’s impressive from a student who has a background like he has.”
His scholarship ended this summer, but he is using his Pell Grant to pay his tuition, and he became a Maverick Village resident assistant.
“He’s just a person that moves forward,” said Constance Sorensen-Birk, a mentor from Project Achieve. “There’s nothing more inspiring than watching people transcend a horrible situation.”
Levering is a fan of Microsoft products, and he hopes to work for the company after he graduates. His mentors hope so, too.
“I hope Cornelius finds the life path he’s always wanted. I know he has dreams of working for Microsoft,” Fairgood said. “I want Cornelius to do whatever makes his heart happy.”
Levering said he is grateful for his friends and mentors who have helped him navigate through college, but he wants people to remember it was his drive that led him to success.
“I’m not here to prove anything to anyone. I’m just here to get an education for myself,” Levering said. “I got myself here. I started, and I want to finish.”