In true Longhorn fashion, International Relations & Global Studies junior Marie Sells has started something that will change the world. After getting assistance from the non-profit Communities in Schools, Sells made it to the University of Texas at Austin. She took advantage of the opportunities by participating in the Arabic flagship program and studying abroad in Morocco. Recently, she was accepted as a foreign service intern with the United States State Department — a step towards success following a trying journey.
By Zoya Zia
Photos by Miranda Chiechi
During her senior year of high school, Sells was stressed about with college applications and finding scholarships. Her mother gave her an ultimatum. “Either I get a full ride, go to community college, or not go to college at all,” Sells says. “She supported me but said I had to respect what she wanted.”
On top of that, her estranged father had contacted her for the first time in over three years. Since childhood, she had been exposed to abuse in a turbulent marriage. “I remember when I was 3, my dad punched my mom and was sent to jail,” Sells says. “My mom, my sister and I had to stay the night in a woman’s shelter. There were numerous other times when I stayed at a friend’s house.”
The stress piled up, and Sells hit her breaking point as she collapsed on the concrete floor during a high school marching band rehearsal. She felt overwhelmed with financial and familial troubles. “I cried and sobbed as I was wheel-chaired into the nurse’s office,” Sells says. “I am a pretty happy, go-lucky person so none of my friends really knew what was going on.”
After fainting, Sells told her friends that she was worried about going to college without her family’s support. Later, she met a woman from an organization that changed her life forever. “She introduced herself as a part of the non-profit Communities in Schools and said she would be happy to help me figure out how to get to college,” Sells says. “I was taken out of class through the rest of the month to finish my applications.”
Communities in Schools (CIS) is dedicated to helping marginalized students gain an education. Sells notes how CIS became a part of her lifestyle. “With the Project Success program, our CIS coordinator would meet with us in a computer lab to work on SAT prep, ACT prep and college applications,” Sells says. “We had an entire class period devoted to this.”
Surrounded by students in the program who understood issues including domestic abuse and poverty, Sells came to terms with her own personal struggles, which began to resurface. “After the divorce, my dad told me he didn’t want me to think of him as a father,” Sells says. “Out of nowhere, my mom and I got this e-mail from my dad, asking about visitation requirements. I got suspicious and wondered why he wanted to meet me.”
Sells says she has never felt so scared in her life than when she visited her dad. “There were 60 pairs of shoes, cockroaches and mice everywhere,” Sells says. “I slept on an old mattress around all this stuff. Visitations were every two weeks, but I never wanted to go again. It interfered with my education, wasted my time and threatened my safety.”
Eventually, Sells realized that her father wanted custody of her to avoid paying child support and to cut off her mom. “My dad stole my mom’s, my sister’s and my passport and birth certificates so we couldn’t leave the country,” Sells says. “I had to ask a judge for a restraining order because I barely felt safe around my dad.”
Although she says the judge suggested that Sells’ father would be a better provider for her, she refused to live under his roof. “I said I would rather be poor and risk struggling financially with my mom than live with him,” Sells says. Sells was able to live her mother. Although her mother was unemployed and had kidney complications, she drove Sells to band competitions and "was a huge support."
Sells recalls hearing other traumatic stories from her CIS peers. “So many kids deal with what I did if not worse,” Sells says. “Being in CIS is inspiring. Hearing about overcoming struggles is so powerful. We all help and support each other.”
CIS helped Sells apply to UT before the deadline. Even after she got accepted to UT and Liberal Arts Honors, she awaited financial aid results. “I couldn’t decide where to go until I found out about how much financial aid I got,” Sells says. “I just wanted a school I could afford.”
Sells found out that grants and scholarships covered a year’s worth of tuition, textbooks and housing at UT. But she still applied to over 40 scholarships between late January and early May, winning five. “I didn’t want my mom stopping me or my dad or loans,” Sells says. “I didn’t want to burden my mom. I didn’t want my dad to win the battle and have the satisfaction. I proved them all wrong.”
Since freshman year, she has not taken out any loans. She continues to apply for scholarships that help with the additional costs of college. “I want to ease the financial burden off my family as much as I can,” she says.
As she tackled financial obstacles, Sells took part in Longhorn Band and says she enjoyed her first semester at UT. She was social, even though she felt a little out of place. “I noticed a lot of UT students coming from the upper-middle class,” Sells says. “We had different lifestyles and different conversations about what we were going to do over the weekend, for example, but I never held that against anyone.”
With a busy schedule, however, Sells began struggling. In February of her freshmen year, she had to get treatment after three weeks of constant stomach pain. “They gave me a diet and I gained 18 pounds in two weeks,” Sells says. “Weight gain, depression and stomach issues tumbled on me.”
To make matters worse, Sells had issues with her mother. “I know she loves me but she is critical sometimes,” Sell says. “She told me if anything went bad, it was because I wasn’t having enough faith.”
Although she attended counseling, she never met with anyone consistently because she was taking 17 hours both semesters of her freshmen year while taking band, with a 3.93 GPA. The stress took a toll on Sell’s mental health. “I attempted suicide, which I had experience with in my junior year of high school,” Sells says.
But over time, Sells learned to adjust to college life. She talked to her professors outside of class and thought positively. “I never considered my background as disadvantaged,” Sells says. “I didn’t want to victimize myself. You always have to think about what you can do. Life happens.”
International Relations & Global Studies and Portuguese senior Diana Pop first met Sells at a Women in Foreign Affairs (WFA) meeting in 2014. Since then, Pop and Sells have worked together as officers for WFA. “Marie is always eager to step in and do whatever someone asks of her because she is such a nice person,” Pop says. “As the Events Director in Women in Foreign Affairs, Marie does a great job planning events. She is a great communicator who makes you smile when you talk to her.”
Although Pop did not see Sells much at first, Sells stood out as a nice, caring person. “She has positively impacted me by being true to herself, being really passionate about her studies, and being a big ball of sunshine that brightens the room,” Pop says. “She always asks how my day is and you can tell that she really cares about you and how you're doing.”
With all that Sells has gone through, she says it is only right that she gives back to the program that helped her along the way. CIS South Central developed a post-grad, alumni program. “Life problems won’t stop after graduating since students struggle to be financially independent,” Sells says. Sells mentors students out of state, using Skype and phone calls. She says she hopes to meet with them formally soon.
Sells works with CIS to talk to the CIS National Office about grant funding. She also took part in a leadership retreat for Project Success. “We spend four days in Fort Davis, Texas to talk about perseverance,” Sells says. “This was life-changing because I had never gone camping before since most CIS kids don’t have the opportunity to go camping.”
One of the aims of the retreat is to help students speak up about their struggles “With leaders and with incoming college freshmen, we ask kids to open up and tell their life stories no matter how dark or embarrassing,” Sells says. “Getting these kids out of their shells was shaky and emotional, but it establishes unity because we care if you’re struggling and we’re struggling too. It shows camaraderie."
In addition to helping students through CIS, Sells wants to work in foreign service and help those from disadvantaged backgrounds, internationally. “I think visas and passports are so inspiring since they give people opportunities in life,” Sells says. “Some may see this office work boring, but it is where the work gets done. Fame is not something for me.”
According to Pop, Sells’ is “the definition of a people-person.” Not only did Sells interact with the people she met studying abroad in Morocco, but she also works with the members in WFA and the people she lives with in her co-op. “I think it's in her character to persevere and be available for as many people as she can,” Pop says. “Marie also strikes me as really honest and genuine. She's very open and you can see her true personality shine through.”
Sells says she has six plans for the future, and it all depends on the feasibility of them. For now, she knows she’d like to study abroad again or intern with CIS. For her required Capstone, she wants to write about education or immigration. “Knowing that my work can help another person in the future is what motivates me,” Sells says. “CIS helps me consider, how can I stop working or trying if I can see students struggling as much or worse than me?”
As Sells makes way to change the world, she finally grasps the key to her success. “I think about why I question myself, question living, or consider suicide,” Sells says. “I know I have to stop comparing myself to others. And now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Pop says she looks up to Sells because of her passion for pursuing her interests and for helping others. As a Longhorn, Sells’ continues to broaden her experiences and knowledge. “You can tell from her enthusiastic tone and smiling face when she talks about her studies and experiences that she really loves what she's doing,” Pop says. “She'll make an impact in the world.”