At age 30, Edith Middleton will graduate from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in May with one of the most unusual biographies among seniors in the Class of 2010.
The psychology major was born in Communist Romania. The oldest of five children, the number that the Communists required each family to have or face stiff penalties, she was just five years old and her youngest sibling was one month old when their mother locked them all in the house and left, never to return.
It was the harvest, a busy time in their farm community. It was two weeks before anyone found them. The children were sent to live with a grandmother, but she was unable to care for them, so like many Romanian children, they ended up in an orphanage.
The conditions there were reminiscent of a Dickens novel, says Middleton, who has a minor in English. The children’s heads were shaved, they ate once a day if they were lucky, and they had cold showers. When she was 11, Edith says, people thought she was an eight-year-old boy. Because their last name was Portik, coincidentally the same as the male orphan who ruled the roost, they were spared some of the worst treatment.
Still, during the upheavals in Romania when the president was shot and the Communists were overthrown, an armed soldier came into the girls’ ward and raped and strangled to death Edith’s best friend.
Foreigners then began coming in to sort things out. Her younger siblings were taken away, “torn out of my arms,” she recalls, and sent to Hungary.
“I watched the bus pull away – I didn’t see them again until I was 13,” she says.
French soldiers came into the orphanage and mentored the children, and Edith began to learn French, one of five languages she now speaks.
Many Romanian children were illegally adopted. But Edith was legally adopted by Americans who lived in Vienna. Five years later, her new parents took in her brothers, too, as foster children.
Edith learned English quickly, in order to communicate with her new parents, and she picked up German in Vienna. Her father, who worked for Cigna, was transferred to Singapore for a year, and later to Milan, where she learned Italian.
Summers were spent in the U.S., where her adoptive parents had family in North Carolina and Florida and where they owned a summer home in upstate New York. Edith moved to the U.S. in 1998, and began her freshman year at Williams College.
Living in a college dormitory brought on nightmares about the orphanage dorm. After a year and a half, Edith left, thinking that she needed a year off. She moved to Florida and worked three jobs to support herself. At 19, she married a professional tennis player, and they moved to New York City.
At 21, she had her first child. Returning to school at Williams was no longer an option. In 2004, she and her husband moved to Bloomfield, where they bought a tennis club and she had her second daughter. In 2007, the couple separated, and Edith began taking classes at the Greater Hartford campus of UConn, determined to finish her degree as she worked full time as a waitress in West Hartford.
This semester, her last, has been her first at the Storrs campus, which she loves.
“I can’t believe the warmth I get from the campus here,” she says. Not only have people been supportive and welcoming, she says, but her professors are passionate about their subjects.
After graduation, Middleton plans to earn a master’s degree and teach high school English. She wants to teach in the inner city.
“I’d like to teach in an environment where I can make a difference. I bring a lot of heartache experience with me,” she says. That helps her identify with students who cope with difficult lives.
Her brothers are now in Minneapolis raising families of their own. This summer, she plans a trip to Hungary with one of her brothers to visit relatives who have moved there.
Edith says she felt like an orphan for a long time, even after she left the orphanage. Graduating from college is a milestone that is changing that feeling.
“Finally, at 30, I feel not lost,” she says.