Steven Rocker has this childhood experience “burned” into his memory: When he was seven, he saw his mother, who was pregnant and addicted to crack, stabbed and thrown down five flights of stairs in the Queens, New York, apartment building where they were living. There was so much blood it looked like a murder scene. She was jailed a few months later.

After that, Steven endured a year and a half of foster care hell—until he and one of his brothers were placed with a loving older couple, Zelma and Charles Mc’Iver. “They took us to church. They taught us how to do things. They let me know I was smart. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known anything about what I was capable of.” He calls the Mc’Ivers his grandparents.

By then, he’d moved around so much that he’d fallen behind at school. He was put back a grade and into special education. “They’d take me out of class and put me in a resource room. It made me feel like I wasn’t as smart as the other kids. It took me a while but I got out. My grandparents had my back on that.” They taught him the discipline to work hard. When he was 15, he and his siblings returned to live with their mother, who had gotten out of prison, quit drugs and spent three years going through every hoop to get them back. Steven wanted to live her but when he saw her, he didn’t even recognize who she was.

The change was difficult. His mother worked, and when Steven got home from school, he would cook, clean house and then study when the younger ones went to bed. He was the one who attended their parent-teacher conferences. Still, he maintained a 3.7 average in high school.

A college counselor suggested he apply for a Beat the Odds scholarship. It was very painful, he said, to tell the story of what had happened to him. After winning Beat the Odds, television personality Rosie O’Donnell identified Steven as a “super kid” and hosted him on her show. She introduced him to the Kellogg Company, which awarded him a full scholarship to college. Still determined to prove that he was smart, Steven wanted not only to go to college but to an Ivy League school.

Steven got into Columbia University and “felt like everybody had to run around the track one time. I had to run around 10 times to catch up. I had to seek a lot of help. I practically slept in the library.” He graduated with a double major in English literature and political science. He went on to graduate Summa Cum Laude with a master of Business Administration from Monroe College while working at the New York Times as a statistician, his current job. He would like to start his own business and recently won a Business Plan of the Year award from the Masters of Business Administration Association for a website to help students communicate and think critically.

Winning the Beat the Odds award and the subsequent attention was “an amazing experience” that “catapulted me into another world,” Steven said. “The Children’s Defense Fund believed in me more than anybody. They’re always reaching out to connect with me. I couldn’t have gotten where I am without them.”