UCF finance major Taylor Hutson has gone from sleeping in her car and living out of a plastic box to studying abroad in Vienna and getting ready to launch her career in international business – because she didn’t let homelessness define her.

Hutson was one of the more than 13,000 estimated homeless students that are in Osceola, Seminole and Orange counties, according to the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. The 23-year-old Orlando native found herself homeless twice since graduating from high school in 2011.

“I was close to talking myself out of going to college because I didn’t have everything figured out,” said Hutson, now a junior at UCF. “My senior year of high school felt full of rejection on so many levels, and my grades weren’t my first priority. I had no clue how to transition my life.”

She worked multiple jobs, stayed with family, slept on friends’ couches and lived out of her car while applying for scholarships and enrolling at Valencia College. She saved up enough to rent an apartment.

Soon she was working three jobs to pay rent and bills while attending class full time and majoring in biology. She took a semester off to save money and continued to work.

“The thing about homeless youth is that they blend in easily and you would never know what we’ve gone through,” said Hutson, who now has a stable housing situation and is studying abroad in Austria, this semester. “An experience we have in life isn’t always the best, but the worst moments teach us the best and most useful things, if we let them.”

She said she realized biology wasn’t really her forte and went back to school with a new focus on business and marketing after running a baking business among her many jobs. She was nearly at the end of her lease when she received an eviction notice for being behind on the rent. She sold some of her furniture, picked up babysitting jobs and stopped buying groceries that week. Hutson made rent and finished out the lease. But she didn’t have money to rent another apartment.

So she moved the few things she had left into a storage unit and stayed there whenever she couldn’t sleep in her car or crash on a friend’s couch. A plastic container in her car served as her closet. A PO Box became her permanent address and a cheap gym membership provided her with showers and a place to watch TV.

When a friend bought a Lebanese restaurant franchise, Hutson offered to help organize the paperwork and licenses in part to keep busy and distracted from the depression she was feeling. She negotiated a job organizing the business’s finances and running its daily operations. She even learned some of the Arabic language.

“If I hadn’t experienced the things I did in life up to that point, I wouldn’t have been so open-minded or much of a risk taker,” said Hutson, who plans to pursue a career in international business investments when she graduates. “I’ve always been attracted to business and the entrepreneurial culture, and being homeless created the opportunity for me to pursue it.”

She began classes at UCF in fall 2015 through the DirectConnect to UCF program and decided her academic struggles at Valencia would not define her time at UCF.

“When I started UCF, my academic mindset and motivation had changed dramatically. I was motivated to be involved with school activities, had a passion for professionalism, a drive for networking and a goal to achieve my best,” she said.  Now she serves as an ambassador for the College of Business and is involved in a long list of extracurricular activities, including Phi Beta Lambda, a Future Business Leaders of America organization, Financial Management Association and Young Investors Club. She also is one of the founding members of the new UCF chapter of Athena Women Empowered and is a member of the President’s Leadership Council.

Earlier this year, she interned for the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness and worked on the Rethink Homelessness campaign, a grassroots initiative to raise awareness about youth homelessness.

“Taylor has demonstrated both grit and grace in overcoming her own homelessness, and in the process, she has taught us much about ways we can help others like her across Central Florida,” said Shelley Lauten, chief executive officer for the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. “Youth homelessness needs our attention and Taylor’s courage and leadership in drawing attention to this important issue has been invaluable.”

Hutson hopes sharing her story will help other children and young adults struggling with homelessness.

“I aim to gain more perspective through my life lessons and the experiences that UCF has provided me in such a short time,” said Hutson, who plans to graduate in fall 2018. “I want to help others by making an impact, I want to go global and I want to be involved in business.”