From 16 in a homeless shelter to a UK social work degree

Published 6:36 am Sunday, December 6, 2020

At 16, Tamara Vest had had enough.

Tired of the abuse, neglect and intimidation she said she faced in her older brother’s home, Vest was ready to open up to a social worker at Tates Creek High School. She didn’t know then that was the first step down a long, challenging road through homelessness, foster homes and years of growing up fast to fend for herself.

Now at 23, Vest is arms length from a degree in social work from the University of Kentucky. On Dec. 4, she delivered the online commencement address to the class of 2020. She’s hoping to be a symbol of resilience to a crop of young people who are graduating into hard times that could potentially shape the rest of their professional lives.

“I used to look down on my past,” Vest said. “It was something that really weighed on me and brought me down.”


Vest’s father died from cancer when she was 9. Her mom really wasn’t in the picture because of a long battle with substance abuse. After a custody battle, Vest could either live with her older half-brother or go into foster care.

Vest moved in with her brother and “it was just not good for me at all. It was not a good home.” She noticed that she was disciplined differently compared to other kids, not allowed to do certain things others could. Eventually, over the six years she lived there, it escalated into verbal and physical abuse.

If she spoke out about her home life, she would be put in foster care which her caretakers told her would be “worse than what I was already going through. So of course, as a child, I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want it to be worse.'”