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RCTC grad wants to be a voice

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"I'm super happy now. And I'm super whole. But for a long time it was difficult to get there," says Sarah Brakebill-Hacke, 31, of Eyota, who will graduate from Rochester Community and Technical College Thursday. Brakebill-Hacke has overcome a lot in her personal life -- including being bounced around the foster system as a teenager, a pregnancy at the age of 16 and homelessness. "How lucky am I to make it out of that life of desperation?" she said, noting she'd trade none of those life experiences. Brakebill-Hacke has been accepted to Wellesley College and Smith College -- and is still waiting to hear from Yale University -- and aspires to be an attorney. "I'm very, very nice. But I can be fierce."

If you didn’t know anything about Sarah Brakebill-Hacke’s life, you might think she was some wild-eyed idealist.

The way she talks about giving power to the people, voice to the voiceless, building strong communities that can shape their future.

You would think she had no idea how brutal and isolating real life can be.

But, in fact, Brakebill-Hacke, who graduates today from Rochester Community and Technical College today, knows all too well. She knows more than most.

At 13, Brakebill-Hacke was bouncing from one foster home to the next. By 16, she was a young mother and on her own. By 18, overwhelmed by the demands of being a mom, work and life as a student at RCTC, she placed her son for adoption.

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Tormented by guilt and despair, Brakebill-Hacke dropped out of college, her life in a downward spiral.

She was sleeping in a van outside of a Walmart in Washington state, in an abusive relationship and raising a 9-month-old baby, when she had an epiphany. She walked into the Walmart and encountered her first petition.

The woman collecting signatures at the table had a baby on her back, so there was an immediate sense of identification. Brakebill-Hacke didn’t know a person could get paid doing such work.

But, more importantly, it was her first introduction to a basic tool of direct democracy, which allows people to collect signatures and bring ballot questions to the people.

This woman who had often felt a victim of the system began to lose her sense of powerlessness. Soon, she was petitioning others with a baby on her back.

"It (was) the first time in my life that I ever realized that people had any power," Brakebill-Hacke said. "I thought we were all victims of this broken system. There was never going to be a place for me, and there was nothing I could do to change it."

For the next six years, Brakebill-Hacke would work on more than 30 petition drives aimed at changing laws and policies. She ended up managing crews and owning her own business.

"She’s tenacious and got a lot of grit," said RCTC Interim President Mary Davenport, who became a mentor to Brakebill-Hacke and worked with her during Brakebill-Hacke’s time as president of the Student Senate. "I think she’s a very capable woman."

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Even at her lowest points, Brakebill-Hacke said she never allowed herself to completely succumb to circumstances. Her father is a heroin addict and she didn’t want to go down that path.

She was also motivated by the son she placed for adoption. He is now 14 and Brakebill-Hacke maintains contact with him. She didn’t want him to look at her one day and be relieved that she had given him up for adoption.

She was also driven by a desire to help others, the less privileged, people like she once was.

"Even when I was little, I was like that little girl who sticks up for the person being bullied," she said. "I didn’t really care about the consequences. I didn’t care if I was unpopular due to sticking up for that person."

Today, when she graduates with 930 other RCTC students at the Regional Sports Center, the 31-year-old Brakebill-Hacke’s future bears little resemblance to one she once faced.

She was recently awarded a Cooke Foundation College Scholarship that pays up to $40,000 annually for three years. She has been accepted at Wesley College and plans to study the law.

"I know there’s a lot of people out there who who feel like they’re victims of a broken system," Brakebill-Hacke said. "I want them to know that they have a voice, that they have power and that there’s a way out.

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What: Rochester Community and Technical College Commencement.

When: 6 p.m. today.

Where: RCTC Regional Sports Center. 

Related Topics: PEOPLEEDUCATION
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