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Going from a foster house to the White House

Alyssa Jackson
  • Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson spoke at the Rotary Club of York's meeting on Wednesday.
  • She spoke of her passion for traveling and helping others, which ultimately led her to the White House.
  • She spent the first few years of her life in a foster home in York.

Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson started her life in a foster home but is now working in a much larger, much more famous home: The White House.

The York native spoke at the Rotary Club of York's meeting at the Yorktowne Hotel on Wednesday about her experiences growing up: moving from her foster home — where she was loved by her foster parents but shared a queen bed with the other children — to her grandparents' home when she was in first grade, where her love of politics was fostered, to Georgetown University and ultimately the White House.

Today Corbin-Johnson, 25, works as the adviser and assistant to the director for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

And she has fought tooth and nail to get there.

As a kindergartner, she felt she was different from other kids, she told the group. When she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she proudly stood among the "doctors," "teachers" and other jobs that the students chose, and said, "My name is Shavonnia, and I want to be president when I grow up."

Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson addresses the Rotary Club of York on Wednesday at the Yorktowne Hotel in downtown York.

Corbin-Johnson said growing up in a foster family helped define who she is today by making her more open to people.

"I know it's important to have family," she said. "I feel, being in a foster home, it really broadened my definition of what family is. It's allowed me to see the best in people."

In her speech, Corbin-Johnson described growing up with her grandparents and asking for tickets to France every Christmas, only to be told that they couldn't afford them. It was thanks to the Rotary Club of York that she was able to travel to France after she graduated from York Country Day School, through the Euculano Scholarship fund and the youth exchange initiative.

Former president and current Rotary member Michele Baker said the scholarship is in memory of a former Rotarian who was particularly active with the youth exchange program. Baker was the president of the Rotary when Corbin-Johnson was selected as a youth exchange student, and looking back, Baker said, she was a great choice.

"She's the whole package," Baker said of Corbin-Johnson. "She's intellectually gifted and she has a vision — a positive one, for herself and her country."

It was then that Corbin-Johnson took a gap year before attending Georgetown to travel to France from June 2009 to June 2010 on behalf of the Rotary Club of York. During her time there, she said, she learned three main things: to be flexible, to be open to all types of people and to appreciate the benefit of hard work.

Corbin-Johnson's grandmother, the Rev. Roberta Johnson, said after Corbin-Johnson's speech that her granddaughter's openness is one of her favorite qualities.

"She's a people person," she said with a proud laugh. "She loves all nationalities, all cultures. She never forgets from whence she's come."

It was her grandparents, particularly her grandmother, who solidified Corbin-Johnson's passion for politics and people. In her speech, she told the story of her 18th birthday, when her grandmother came rushing into her room at 8 a.m. with a form to fill out.

"She excitedly grabbed the form from my hand and pranced — yes, pranced — to the door," Corbin-Johnson recalled. "She stopped suddenly at the door, faced me, and said, 'Oh yeah, I forgot, happy 18th birthday!' ... and I fell back asleep, a newly registered voter."

With the end of President Barack Obama's term approaching in January, Corbin-Johnson isn't sure what's next for her. She said in an interview that she will continue to work toward her master's degree in international relations, with a focus on India, Pakistan and the Middle East, through George Washington University.

She is planning a trip to India and several other trips to visit places beyond the nine countries she's already been to. No concrete job decisions have been made, though.

During her speech, Corbin-Johnson fielded a question from an audience member who wanted to know if she still had plans to run for president. Corbin-Johnson laughed and hesitantly asked, "Is this on the record or off the record?" before saying, "It's never left my mind."

"I never would have dreamed that I would be able to go from foster house to the White House," Corbin-Johnson said.