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Once homeless, UNC student now thriving on campus

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GREELEY, Colo. — For most college students, a residence hall is where you pass time before moving into a house or apartment.

Not so for Tyler Cobb, a freshman at the University of Northern Colorado.

For Cobb, who spent her first year of high school bouncing between living in a car and motels, the West Campus Residence Hall South is a palace of permanence. While her roommates are already considering off-campus housing next year, Cobb would just as soon stay put.

"Now that I'm here, this actually feels permanent," Cobb said. "I can't get kicked out unless I do something bad."

Not likely for Cobb, who is as grateful to be on the road to stability and success as any 18-year-old can be.

Her first two years of high school, when she was in survival mode in Newport News, Va., were a blur of homelessness, scraping by with her mother, poor grades and countless absences from school.

"That's when I was homeless — going into high school," Cobb said. "It was probably the worst time to do so, trying to get your life together academically."

Cobb, an only child, and her mother started living out of their car after her mother's fiance, who had been supporting them, was critically injured and later died while serving in the military in Iraq.

"It was pretty much my whole freshman year that we lived in a car or motel," Cobb said. "I consider myself pretty smart, but it doesn't matter how smart you are if you don't have any place to study or do homework. I'm pretty amazed I got to this point, now looking back."

Looking back, college seemed an unlikely prospect. When she wasn't in school or hanging out with friends, never revealing the desperate nature of her personal life, Cobb worked two jobs. She figured the work-a-day life — not college — was her future.

The summer before Cobb's junior year, mother and daughter packed up and moved to Colorado, where the ex-husband and her father lived. Cobb was born in Colorado and spent summers here visiting her dad.

In Denver, they found a house to rent and Cobb's mother enrolled in nursing school.

At Thomas Jefferson High School, Cobb got involved in cheerleading and gymnastics, and her grades began trending upward.

Still, she remembered sitting in a counselor's office and saying, "I don't know how college is going to work, how I'm going to get there. I just need to get classes to graduate."

But she also knew she likely wasn't going to make a living as a swim and gymnastics coach — jobs she held in high school.

Before her senior year, Cobb toured UNC and liked the size of the college. It fit the bill, because she didn't want to live at home and go to community college. "I couldn't do that — I'd had enough of that."

She took a shot and applied to UNC.

Cobb was accustomed to feeling bad about the bad old days. She didn't discuss them with anyone, not with her new friends at TJ and not with the adviser who was trying to talk her into college.

Something had to give. It did. In the form of a rejection by UNC.

All her TJ friends, who had watched her get good grades and excel in extracurriculars, were amazed by the denial.

"They didn't know anything (about the past)," Cobb said. "I guess I just erased those first two years of high school. I was just as shocked as anyone."

She went to talk to her adviser again, and the tears started flowing. Cobb explained why her transcripts were such a mess from Virginia. The counselor suggested she reapply to UNC and send a note explaining the extenuating circumstances. Cobb retook the ACT test and she applied for the Denver Scholarship.

This time everything came together. Cobb was accepted to UNC, where she's majoring in communications with an emphasis on teaching, and she got the scholarship, which is geared to Denver Public Schools students.

She's on the Bears cheerleading team and last week enjoyed her first out-of-state trip with the squad, to a basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

It was a fitting place for Cobb to find herself. The gamble of opening up and confronting what had happened paid off.

Cobb is now one of the UNC students who helps show the campus to high schoolers.

When she led some DPS students around, "I said, 'My advice would be let people know your background. I kept things a secret so long. Had I said something had I known that then, I wouldn't have got denied the first time.' "

She feels comfortable at UNC, which has a minority enrollment of 19 percent, and is doing well in her classes. Cobb isn't inclined to go looking for off-campus housing, not when the rootedness feels so right, so refreshing, in the residence hall.

"I love the convenience of living on campus," she said. "Don't mess up a good thing is how I see it."

The mess of her past is, quite literally, 2,000 miles away. She keeps distancing herself from it.

Cobb intends to go all the way for her Ph.D.

"If I can get my doctorate and have people call me Dr. Cobb, that would be great," she said.