Sabrina Podsobinski would love to avoid some of the people in her past and is constantly taking steps to do so. She avoids certain stores, keeps her address private and is always on the lookout.
But the past itself doesn’t scare her. Not anymore.
The 28-year-old Southern Oregon University student has beaten the odds enough to know that the painful memories of where she came from and the things she’s seen may represent a substantial part of the woman she’s become, but as obstacles to progress they’ve proven to be no match for Podsobinski’s street-wise resourcefulness and threshold for inner turmoil.
“Actually,” she said, “it’s been empowering for me.”
Southern Oregon University’s commencement ceremony Saturday, June 13, at Raider Stadium represents only the latest example of Podsobinski’s resolve. Roughly 12 years after she stepped into a classroom for the first time as a junior at Ashland High School, Podsobinski will earn a bachelor’s degree from SOU with a 4.0 grade-point-average and is one of two students who will be presented with the Dankook Award, given to each class’s outstanding undergraduate male and female.
A double major in communication and psychology, Podsobinski is tentatively planning on taking a year or two off before going for her masters in business administration at SOU. She also has her eye on an organizational psychology masters program that may or may not get off the ground at Oregon Tech.
By “taking a year off,” Podsobinski means that she will continue to work full-time at her current job. That qualifies as a break for Podsobinski, who’s been working her way through school, putting in 30 to 40 hours a week, since she first wandered into AHS in the fall of 2003.
“I don’t even know if that’s legal,” she laughs, recalling how some of her shifts at a local fast-food joint wouldn’t end until 2 a.m., after which she’d have only a few hours to rest before it was time to get ready for her first class. It was during one of those long nights, beaten down by exhaustion, that Podsobinski decided to put everything she had into her education.
“That first taste of working, at 15, at a hotel and a restaurant, was an eye-opener that, ‘Oh, I can’t continue this cycle, I have to do something,’” she said.
As hard as that was for Podsobinski, it was a weekend at Disneyland compared to what came before.
To hear Podsobinski describe her childhood is to witness the travails of a real-life Charles Dickens protagonist, pulled by her hair through a psychedelic, modern day gauntlet of abuse and neglect. The setting was any state Podsobinski and her two siblings happen to be passing through on any given day, and the villain was none other than their mother, Valery Podsobinski.
Sabrina Podsobinski says she and her younger siblings, sister Jaidyanne, 20, and brother Christopher, 17, lived as reluctant vagabonds for years as their mother, often high on drugs or alcohol or both, dragged them along. She partied with biker gangs, crashed with fellow deadheads and camped out with the Rainbow Family of Living Light, all the while cutting her children loose from any potential emotional connection as soon as it started to take hold by quickly pulling up stakes (sometimes literally) and moving on to the next obsession.
“If we felt unsafe in a situation, we’d group up and then isolate ourselves away from everyone else,” Christopher Podsobinski said. "And then we would just wait until whatever was happening was over.”
The Podsobinski kids, Sabrina says, were barred from making friends, abandoned for days or even weeks at a time and denied access to books and television — a restriction which the Podsobinskis rebelled against by becoming avid, closet readers (Jaidyanne had already read every required book before starting her English literature class in college, “because classics are so easy to get at Goodwill”). They also were physically and emotionally abused, and tricked into consuming marijuana and LSD.
The damage, they say, is profound, and in many ways irreversible.
“It’s super stressful, like my heart rate’s rising right now, talking about it,” Sabrina Podsobinski said.
Jaidyanne Podsobinski experiences similar reactions.
“Every time I come home from college, any time I’m nearby where we used to live with her it’s just a huge adrenaline burst,” she said. “I’m super worried, I’ve got a hyperactive amygdala response, we all do, from that.”
All three have been diagnosed with different forms of post traumatic stress disorder.
Sabrina Podsobinski moved out of her mom’s house at age 15, shortly after the family relocated to northern California. When her mom and siblings moved to Ashland about a year later, Podsobinski followed suit — to remain close to her siblings — and enrolled in Ashland High.
Though none of her new classmates or teachers knew it, Podsobinski was attempting to tackle Mount Everest armed only with flip flops and a roll of yarn. AHS is annually recognized as one of the best-performing high schools in the state, but Podsobinski’s hopes of meeting her new school’s high standards rested on an educational foundation built of whatever second-hand books she could scrounge up and keep hidden from her mother.
Her inexperience with classroom norms manifested itself in unexpected ways. Once, after a teacher asked for an essay to be double-spaced, Podsobinski was careful to press the space bar twice between every word.
Still, she made it through, even excelling in art and theater — a few of her paintings decorate her house today, and as a senior she performed with the Ashland High choir in Carnegie Hall. For the first time ever she made friends that she could keep, though she found she had more in common with teachers. Her survival instincts sharpened to a point after years of caring for herself and her siblings, she struggled to relate to teenagers, whose desires for independence and material possessions were, to Podsobinski, completely foreign.
One of those teachers, Betsy Bishop, apparently aware of her student’s financial struggles, bought Podsobinski a pair of dance shoes for a performance. It was small gestures like that, Podsobinski says, that helped her and her siblings cope, that gave them hope. A decade later, she still has the shoes.
For Podsobinski’s siblings, the nightmare finally ended on Jan. 31, 2011, when a therapy session turned up a piece of information that started a chain of events which ended with Valery Podsobinski pleading guilty to two counts of possession of an illegal substance and two misdemeanor assault charges. She was sentenced to five years of counseling for mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, addiction, domestic abuse and anger management and was ordered to have no contact with her children.
After Sabrina Podsobinski graduated from AHS, she immediately started taking classes at Rogue Community College, but she couldn’t afford it and had to drop out. Four years later she returned, earned her associate’s degree, then applied for every scholarship she could get her hands on in an effort to pay for Southern Oregon University. Those scholarships ended up paying for roughly 90 percent of Podsobinski’s degree, she estimates, and she’s made the most of the opportunity.
Besides the Dankook Award, Podsobinski has also received SOU’s Outstanding Senior in Communication Studies award and the Leon C. Mulling Emeritus Scholarship, and has traveled abroad four times in the last two years to expand her education.
Along the way, she also found time to gain custody of Jaidyanne, who followed in her sister’s footsteps by excelling at AHS. Jaidyanne Podsobinski earned a full-ride academic scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where she just completed her sophomore year (she had a 4.0 GPA last term).
Meanwhile, Sabrina Podsobinski continues to defy the odds. Alena Ruggerio, the chairperson in SOU’s department of communication, said Podsobinski was an exceptional student.
“I’ve had the honor of having her in quite a few communication classes and she’s just one of the finest students that we’ve ever seen,” Ruggerio said. “She is incredibly intelligent, pays so much attention to detail and has so much warmth and energy. And what’s so wonderful is that she shares that so generously with the other students.
“I think that being a superb student is part of who she is at the cellular level. She could be nothing else.”
When asked how they were able to get through it, to survive and even thrive, the Podsobinskis, sitting next to each other on a couch Monday morning, looked at each other for the answer.
Christopher provided it.
"Us," he said, "being together."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.