Nothing was ever going to come easy for Gage Smith.
The factors working against him based simply on life’s circumstances made the chances of him even getting to West Virginia University as a student equal parts remarkable and improbable.
Gage grew up in the Martinsburg area in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia and his parents, neither of whom attended college, consistently battled poverty and later divorced. He and his sister wound up living with their abusive father, and it wouldn’t be long before they’d lose the house they were living in. The Smiths then spent time bouncing between staying with the girlfriends of their father and living in the car for the better part of a year – Gage’s head leaning against the window in the back seat while he slept at night. During that time, they were exposed to guns and drugs. His father eventually went to jail and Gage and his sister went back to live with their mother, who worked long hours at a local factory just to try and make ends meet.
There was seemingly no path to college for Gage. He wasn’t exposed to people in his hometown who could serve as an example that there was an opportunity for a better life. Any dreams that he would someday shed his past and forge a new trail had to be conjured out of his own imagination and created from his own determination.
There was no reason to think that things would get better. And yet still, he did. Gage had a secret weapon that nothing from the outside world could ever touch.
“I had hope,” he says.
After he went back to living with his mother, and he saw his mom return from work exhausted. She told him, “Whatever you do, don’t do this.”
Gage decided he needed to figure out a way to do better for himself, which ultimately meant going to college at West Virginia University. He had to navigate the application process on his own, a daunting task for someone entirely unfamiliar with the process, but he figured it out. On Christmas Day, he received his acceptance letter to officially become a Mountaineer.
Like many students after being accepted to college, the worries about how to pay for their education soon loom large and are very real. Gage had little financial support from his parents, so tuition was nearly a dealbreaker.
But, despite all his difficult circumstances, Gage’s outgoing personality could not be extinguished. That personality helped him make friends and build strong relationships, one of which was with a classmate Alex Yates. Gage and Alex hung out together often, and as Alex’s parents learned more about Gage’s uphill battle with tuition, they tried to figure out a way to help him out. Alex’s mother went to church and asked the congregation for financial help on behalf of Gage, and the church responded with a contribution that helped Gage cover initial expenses for his first semester to get him started. Without that initial boost from the generosity of strangers, Gage’s educational journey wouldn’t have started on time, and perhaps not even at all.
“Having people step up like that was sort of an amazing experience,” Gage says. “I didn’t know these people, these people didn’t know me -- I didn’t even go to their church. “Growing up like I did, I constantly saw the worst in people. This reminded me that people are inherently good.”
Gage did not squander his opportunity. Even though he had the initial financial help (his mother contributed when she could, sending him some money for an occasional dinner out), but he had to continue to work while going to school to help pay all the bills. He cleaned classrooms and offices at WVU, he worked at Giant Eagle, and he worked at Ruby Memorial Hospital cleaning exam rooms.
In the classroom, Gage majored in psychology and rounded up three minors: philosophy, human services and criminology.
“I always knew I wanted to try and help people who had similar things to deal with as I did growing up,” he says.
Gage walked across the stage in May of 2023 with his psychology degree from WVU. “Because I didn’t really know how things worked, I thought I’d just go to WVU, graduate, and become a therapist,” he says with a laugh. “Once I got here, I realized it didn’t work that way.”
While earning that degree was a huge accomplishment as a first-generation student, it felt more like a checkpoint than it did a final destination as he knew graduate school was the necessary next step to accomplish his goals.
He applied and got accepted to WVU’s master’s degree in counseling program and recently finished his first semester, one in which has already had an immense impact on him.
“Last semester was one of the most influential semesters I’ve ever had,” he says. “It was such a big change. Our classes were small, so I made a lot of friends in this program and we’re very close as a group.
“We also do a lot of practice – tons and tons of practice – which is a good thing. You have to be really careful and conscientious in this profession because we’re working with people’s lives.
“And this program is also very big on encouraging you to work on yourself, and we’re told that you need to continue to do that so that you are in the best position to help others.”
In the effort to work on himself, Gage counts Ed Jacobs as one of the faculty members at WVU who has helped him navigate his personal battles. Jacobs has provided guidance and mentorship in both formal and informal moments with Gage, demonstrating first-hand the qualities of someone who cares about helping others.
Gage has reinforced his own interest in helping others and has found meaning in working with fellow college students at WVU who come from similar circumstances as he has. He works for the WVU Office of Student Success as a success coach.
“That experience has helped me realize that I like working with this population because there a lot of students who are similar to me and they need the guidance that I didn’t have,” he says.
In 2025, Gage will graduate with his master’s degree in counseling. He hopes to move to a different part of the country, not because he doesn’t love his home state, because he just wants to see more – that same drive to explore that helped lead him out of the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.
“I hope to give people a chance to build up their own positivity,” he says. “I want people to know that as bad as it seems sometimes, it can still work out. I know it can work out.”
Gage Smith knows that he can be an example for others that he didn’t have – to provide hope for those who may not be able to conjure it on their own like he did spending nights sleeping in the backseat of his car.