Once homeless, graduating senior is driven to help end hunger
There were times when she was homeless, foraging for food in dumpsters. There were periods when she felt directionless in life, angry at a system she felt was broken and irreparable. There were times when she simply defected from society.
But now, as Sarah Brakebill-Hacke prepares to graduate from Yale College with a B.A. in global affairs, she knows where she is headed. And she believes she has the power to help change in the world.
Brakebill-Hacke, a 34-year-old mother of two young sons, has spent the last three years in Yale’s Eli Whitney Students Program, which allows exceptional students with nontraditional backgrounds to earn their undergraduate degree. Her next step is Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where she will pursue a master’s degree in international policy.
That pathway might not have seemed likely two decades ago, when she bounced from one foster home to the next as a young teenager. And it probably looked impossible when she became pregnant at age 16, and eventually found herself homeless. She spent one cold Minnesota winter living in a truck trailer with other homeless people.
She dropped out of high school, but passed the GED exam (a high school equivalency test), and later enrolled at Rochester Community & Technical College (RCTC) in Rochester, Minnesota. Managing life and school with a baby, however, proved so challenging that Brakebill-Hacke decided to give up her son for adoption. The loss she felt afterwards was so painful that she decided to leave school and simply live on the road.
“I was completely devastated at that point,” Brakebill-Hacke said. “I had given up. I was feeling that our society is just a broken system and I didn’t want to be a part of it. At that point, I didn’t realize that I could change anything. So I just started hitchhiking, and traded labor for room and board.”
By age 24, Brakebill-Hacke was living in a van with a partner and had another child. Then a random encounter changed the course of her life. After spending a night in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chehalis, Washington, she went into the store to purchase supplies and was invited to sign a petition to stop the gas tax. “I had never seen a petition before, and I remember asking, ‘You can do that? You can make change by having people sign a petition?’” she said. “It was the first time that I realized that people had a voice.”
Soon, Brakebill-Hacke, her baby son on her back, was herself gathering signatures for a wage. Discovering that she was successful at the work, she eventually started her own petition company, managing crews while advocating for such causes as an end to the death penalty and human trafficking, and the introduction of GMO food labelling, among others.
While doing this work, in Arizona, Brakebill-Hacke learned about the Eli Whitney Students Program while researching school options online. “I remember thinking, ‘This is where I want to go. Could Yale be possible for me?’” she recalled.
Before she could even apply to Yale, she realized, she’d have to earn her associate’s degree. She decided to venture back to her home state of Minnesota to re-enroll at RCTC.
Filled with a new sense of agency, Brakebill-Hacke ran for and was elected student president. Realizing that many of her college peers experienced food insecurity, she drafted an act that was passed unanimously by the student senate to allocate senate-controlled student funds to provide emergency food aid to students. She also brought the issue of food insecurity to LeadMN, a student-led advocacy organization representing two-year college students from across the state; the Hunger Free Campus Act, passed after she graduated, was the result of her proposal to add food insecurity on the organization’s platform document. Brakebill-Hacke later served as an intern at LeadMN to research the efficacy of the Hunger Free Campus Act.
“I’m very driven,” said Brakebill-Hacke. “When I see a problem or something not working quite right, I want to find solutions.”
‘We leave behind an echo of ourselves’
In 2018, Brakebill-Hacke was accepted into the Eli Whitney Students Program. At Yale, she has continued to represent the interests of fellow students by serving on the Yale College Council (she has served as a Trumbull College senator and is now the council’s mental health chair). She chose global affairs as her major after witnessing poverty abroad during a summer spent building houses in Guatemala after graduating from RCTC. She wanted to have a global perspective about the problem.
She has relished the opportunities to take classes with leading practitioners in their fields, including Susan Biniaz, a lecturer at Yale Law School who served as the lead climate lawyer for the U.S. State Department and helped negotiate the Paris Agreement, and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bob Woodward, lecturer in English and associate editor at The Washington Post.
“I have loved every one of my professors,” said Brakebill-Hacke, who also spent part of a summer in Paris studying law and economics on a Yale International Study Award and Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship. While the pandemic cut short her time on campus, the opportunity to study remotely allowed her to return home to Minnesota, where during the spring semester she has been able to help care for her mother, who had experienced a series of strokes.
“Sarah embodies the sort of resilience and determination that runs through the Eli Whitney Students Program,” said the program’s director, Risa Sodi. “Her fierce desire to complete her education led her to explore a variety of courses here and in France. Her dive into community life at Yale, beginning with her service to Trumbull College, speaks to her deep-rooted commitment to improving the lives of those around her.
“No one should underestimate the challenges inherent in completing a Yale B.A. as a parent with young children, and I’m proud of what’s she’s accomplished. Sarah has been an asset to the Eli Whitney Students Program, and Stanford will soon learn what an exceptional individual is heading their way.”
At Stanford, Brakebill-Hacke will focus on international security. “My hope is to establish basic needs like food security as a human right,” she said. “I will concentrate on how food insecurity impacts conflict.”
Eventually, Brakebill-Hacke hopes to attend law school to study international law, with the ultimate goal of negotiating international agreements to make food security a basic right.
“When you are poor, you often don’t have good representation,” she said. “I don’t think poverty should be a crime, and I think in a lot of respects it is treated that way. A lot of crimes are crimes of poverty, so I think that if we can alleviate poverty, we will reduce crime in general and increase national security.”
Brakebill-Hacke, who has kept in contact with the son she gave up for adoption, hopes through her work to make the world a better place for him, the two sons in her custody, and all the children who will inherit it.
“We are here on earth for such a short period of time and we leave behind an echo of ourselves,” said Brakebill-Hacke, who will return to campus this month to celebrate her Yale graduation. “I hope the world will be a little kinder because I was here.”