“My mom always told me growing up that [I’d] never go to college unless I found a way to pay for it [myself] because we didn’t have any money,” Sharon Kealm (BS December 2018) says, describing her journey to BYU. Growing up, Kealm had a difficult home life. Her father struggled with drug addiction and mental illness, so Kealm’s mother left. “We [my mother, sister and I] lived with my grandparents for the majority of my early childhood,” Kealm explains. Furthermore, the local school system didn’t have the infrastructure to adequately support Kealm’s education, leaving her behind academically.
Things changed, however, when Kealm was in second grade. “My dad wanted to be more of a part of our lives,” Kealm says, “[he] tried his best to be a responsible adult.” Kealm’s father took a job as a janitor at a private school and he was able to get both Kealm and her sister enrolled. The new school offered Kealm a better educational system. “I was able to make up for [the] lost time within my second grade year, and I was on track,” Kealm recalls, though she adds, “[The school] was really good instruction-wise, but pressure-wise, it was not the best.”
This pressure included a dress code that banned girls from wearing pants, arguing that pants were a temptation for men, and strict punishments for minor infractions. What’s more, Kealm’s home life remained tumultuous as the years went on. “I lived two weeks with my mom and one week with my dad on and off again for six years, which was really difficult,” Kealm explains, “I knew it just wasn’t the best situation.”
After six years at private school, Kealm moved to public school in ninth grade, which offered better opportunities. According to Kealm, this transition brought about at least three important changes. First, Kealm says, “I was able to wear pants to school, which was like the best thing ever.” Public school also offered a better selection of extracurricular activities, and Kealm joined both the tennis and soccer teams. But, most important to Kealm’s future, she made several good friends who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I didn’t really know anything about their religion at all, other than they were really good people, and that I felt good when I was around them, and that they just came from really solid families. That’s something I never had, so I aspired to have that,” Kealm recalls. Kealm experienced this firsthand with her member friend Katelyn. Katelyn and her family went out of their way to make Kealm feel comfortable exploring their religion. Before long, Kealm was going to seminary, attending church with Katelyn’s family, and meeting with the missionaries.
Although her spiritual journey wasn’t straightforward and Kealm faced some opposition, she was eventually baptized her senior year of high school.
Interestingly, the baptism came after Kealm’s admission to BYU. She hadn’t originally considered any church schools, but her bishop encouraged her to apply. Eventually, Kealm narrowed her decision to Sacramento State or BYU. “Something just kept telling me to choose BYU,” Kealm says, “I needed to get out of my hometown; I needed to get out of the house. It was a very toxic environment.”
Prior to leaving high school, Kealm worked very hard to earn scholarships, earning enough to fully cover two years of schooling. Recently, she’s also received a Replenishment Grant, which comes from money raised by her local BYU Alumni chapter. Once Kealm is financially stable, she will pay back the amount, free of interest, to help another student with their schooling.
As she approaches graduation (Kealm will graduate in December with a degree in Experience Design Management) Kealm is grateful for the experience she’s had at BYU. “It’s been such a blessing. I’ve had so many doors opened up to me that I never thought would happen to me. I went on a mission to Spain, I went on a study abroad to Europe…I’ve had all these different job opportunities….Just so many opportunities have been opened up to me that I never thought was possible. And really, it’s all thanks to BYU…and my decision to join the church.”