Conner Crowder graduated from North Thurston High School last week with a 3.4 grade point average, and nearly $20,000 in college scholarships and awards in hand.
Several of the scholarships are renewable, which means his college tuition is basically taken care of.
“Life couldn’t be better,” he said. “There’s, like, a state of disillusion that I almost fell in. I’m like, ‘I’ll wake up soon. It’s a great dream, though.’”
Crowder, 19, of Lacey, describes his choice to enroll in North Thurston High for his senior year as “a restart.” Most of his classmates at North Thurston didn’t know about his past, when life was “a little shakier,” he said.
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Crowder grew up in Poulsbo, and had things stayed on track, he would have joined the kids he’s known since preschool in North Kitsap High School’s graduation ceremony a year ago.
Instead, life went a different direction.
“So, in seventh grade, my dad went to prison for strangling my mother,” he said.
Then his mom became addicted to methamphetamine. And one night, during his junior year in high school, she came home with an announcement.
“She tells me, ‘I have three days before we’re being evicted from our apartment,’” Crowder said.
When that eviction occurred, the teen ended up living in his car, and working two jobs to support himself. He said he frequently stayed in a Walmart parking lot. Sometimes, he stayed in the woods.
“I think the worst was when I had to get new shoes, but I couldn’t afford shoes because I was trying to manage my money for food,” Crowder recalls. “It was a choice between: ‘Do I want sandwiches for a week, or do I want shoes?’ And I didn’t want to make that choice.”
Crowder was in Running Start, a program where teens can earn high school and college credits at the same time. But he ended up dropping out of Olympic College at the beginning of his second quarter.
“That was just a disappointment to myself,” he recalls.
When Crowder turned 18, he applied for public assistance programs for food and health insurance.
“When you’re raised by someone who smokes meth every day, you’re not really being raised, so I had already done my mother’s Medicaid, and my mother’s Medicaid for me,” he said. “My mindset was ‘Once I’m 18, I’ll be able to live on my own. Not just I’ll have to, but I’ll be able to.’”
Last fall, Crowder and his girlfriend moved in with his sister in Lacey so that he could finish his senior year of high school.
He was connected with Deanna East, an educational assistant in the North Thurston Public Schools. She works for the McKinney Vento Homeless program and helps support “unaccompanied youth,” teens not living with their parents. Crowder was one of 156 unaccompanied youth in the nearly 14,500-student school district last year. They’re considered homeless by federal guidelines, and are eligible for extra support.
“Conner is the picture of resilience,” East said. “He really has seen more than a kid his age should see.”
Crowder said he declined some of the program’s offerings, which include free clothing and backpacks full of food for the weekend.
He said he believes those services should be reserved for kids who are in worse situations, like when he lived in his car for about six months.
However, Crowder took East up on an offer to help him with college scholarship applications.
“It’s like a personal trainer for scholarships,” he said.
They met once a week to work on scholarship essays. Crowder put in more than 100 applications, and received three scholarships and an award.
“Conner will be successful at whatever he chooses to do,” East said. “He has that kind of determination.”
Crowder plans to attend Tacoma Community College, and become a licensed ultrasound technician. He’s interested in that career path because it’s all about sound, and music is his favorite hobby.
While in college, he plans to continue working as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut and UberEats.
What his advice to people facing personal struggles?
“There’s no giving up,” he said. “When you’re stuck in the hardest place that you’ve ever been, it can get worse, and you can’t let it. ...You have to keep trying, and if you keep trying, there will be something good that happens.”