Like most high school juniors and seniors, Dustin Hejdak is not all that fond of filling out college scholarship applications.
It’s time consuming, feels too much like homework and there is no guaranteed payoff.
But when Hejdak sat down and wrote a series of essays for the national Horatio Alger Association scholarship, the Greendale High School senior found the process almost therapeutic. The essays are designed to demonstrate how a student has faced and overcome personal adversity.
“It brought back a lot of stuff,” Hejdak said. “The essays were perfect for me to write about, which is probably why I got (the scholarship). I could have written for a long time; they were easy topics to write about.”
Hejdak was one of 106 national winners of this year’s award, earning $20,000 over four years. And while the essay topics flowed with ease, the financial woes Hejdek and his family have faced have been far from easy to endure.
Hejdak worked for everything
Hejdak is, by his own account, a self-made young man whose life has revolved around money. He's had to work for anything he’s ever wanted, and often everything he’s needed.
Throughout high school, Hejdak’s mother and stepfather, whom Hejdak lived with until just a few weeks ago, have mostly been unemployed. His stepfather manages the apartment building the family lives in, receiving half off the rent as compensation. His parents’ unemployment checks are barely enough to cover the rest of the rent and other bills.
Hejdak said for a period of time, his stepfather was in jail, and his mother has battled issues with alcohol for as long as he can remember.
“She’d have jobs, but she’d get into that binge-drinking stage and she’d get fired because she wouldn’t show up,” Hejdak said. “Then we’d be living off unemployment again. … They’ve had just enough money, barely.”
Hejdak’s parents split when Hejdak was just 1 year old. At times he lived with his father, and other times with his mother. Greendale is his fifth school district; his mother and stepfather moved to Greendale before his freshman year after he attended middle school in Milwaukee.
In January, Hejdak moved back in with his dad in Greenfield. The two have a good relationship, but his dad works third shift and isn’t around much. Still Hejdak said his current situation is more relaxing and that he moved away from his mother and stepfather because there were problems he didn’t want to deal with anymore and he had grown weary of arguing with his stepfather all the time.
“It’s hard not to let it impact you, but I try to just think positive and I think if I let it get to me, what will the outcome be?” Hejdek said. “When that kind of stuff was going on, I just didn’t think about it. Ever since I had a job, I haven’t been home that much, so I didn’t have to deal with many problems.”
Hejdak worked side jobs that paid in cash from the time he was 13 or 14, and as soon as he was able, he got a job with a traditional paycheck, starting at KFC when he was 16, so he could buy a car and make money. He gave up playing high school sports in the process.
Model student, despite home struggles
Despite his hectic work schedule and the trouble at home, Hejdak has been a model student. He is in the top 10 percent of his class, and holds a 3.8 GPA. He’ll be using his scholarship money to go to Kansas University — he was also accepted at the University of Wisconsin Madison — where he plans to major in human biology with his sights set on someday being an orthopedic surgeon.
He’s the president of the high school’s Health Occupation Students of America club, is in student council and is a member of the National Honor Society, and last fall, he was voted the school’s homecoming king.
And all along, he kept the issues he was having at home from his high school guidance councilor Trish Matlock, who said it wasn’t until she read Hejdak’s essays that she knew how hard the senior had it at home.
“I’ve known him for almost four years, and I always felt there was something (wrong), but he never let on about it at all,” Matlock said. “To find out how much strife there was in his personal life, it was shocking. It makes you proud and it gives you faith that there are good people out there.”
Matlock knew something was off during junior conferences, a time when students and parents meet with guidance councilors to talk about college plans and make ACT arrangements.
Hejdak came alone.
“I vividly remember it because you never see a student make an appointment and not come in with a parent,” Matlock said. “You can tell he’s had to be in charge of his own upbringing, and he’s been so self-motivated, basically his whole life.”
Matlock said given his family history, Hejdak could have easily taken a turn for the worse.
“He’s definitely one of a kind in that situation,” she said. “The easy thing would be to say I can’t do it, I can’t be successful, because look how hard things are for me outside of school. … You want to see kids who develop intense resilience, which is a great trait to have. It’s unfortunate to see his at such a high level so soon.”
Still, Hejdak doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s excited about the opportunity to go to college, something few in his family have accomplished, and dreams of being successful, both professionally and personally, down the road. (“When I have kids, I don’t want them to live the life I had to live, to be honest,” he said).
And he doesn’t feel like he’s missed out on a “normal” high school life. He makes time for his friends, is proud that he has his own car and can pay for gas to keep the tank full and maybe even has a leg up on kids his same age.
“I’m glad I’m in the situation I’m in,” Hejdak said. “I know what the responsibilities will be like when I’m older. This is just how it’s going to be for the rest of my life. (Working hard is) what I’ll have to do in college and med-school. It’s prepared me for what my future is going to hold. I can’t complain about it.”