Sheehan Whelan’s mother tried to sell her for drugs when she was a baby. Fortunately for Sheehan, the buyer was an undercover agent. She spent the next eight years in the custody of an elderly grandmother who did not care for her properly. “She palmed me off to other relatives as she saw fit.”

Sheehan saw her mother two or three times as a young child. “She had just come out of incarceration. I remember that. She struggled with bipolar disorder which she medicated with drugs and alcohol.” Later, at age 16, she talked to her mother on the phone. “Her mind was just sort of gone.” She died of a drug overdose when Sheehan was in college. “I feel bad that I never got a chance to extend her grace or forgiveness.” She doesn’t’ have a relationship with her father.

When Sheehan was in the third grade, living in Tyler, Texas, her great aunt rescued her and raised her as if she were her own child. “My great aunt and uncle took me to art classes and the Discovery Zone. They would stretch their pockets to provide me with a normal childhood.”

She considers her aunt, whom she calls her mother, “absolutely the most sacrificial person I know, just salt of the earth and hardworking.” They moved to Tomball, Texas when Sheehan’s aunt got a job as principal of the local junior high school. “She was kind of a pillar of the community and I had to rise to the challenge, have my character on point.” In high school, Sheehan played sports, sang in a local production of Les Miserables, took Advanced Placement classes, worked part-time, became active in her church, and put in many hours of volunteer service. “I think a lot of people look at this like resume building. It’s really an opportunity to change your own heart by giving to others. Because of the situation I came from, I have a big soft spot for that.”

She didn’t think her “testimony was strong enough” to be awarded a Beat the Odds scholarship. But she applied through the prompting of her aunt and teachers. “They said, ‘You have had a resilient life. Give it a chance.’” Receiving it enabled her to go to Texas A&M rather than a local junior college.

Last year, she began attending graduate school at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. She’s interested in international public service. Through the program, she is interning this fall at the U.S. Department of State, working for the undersecretary of civilian security and democracy.