"I've had a tumultuous relationship with the court system," Winter tells PEOPLE, "but I want to be able to make a difference"
Credit: Ari Michelson

Ariel Winter plans on making the best out of a once bad situation.

The Modern Family star spent years in and out of courts as her guardianship was transferred from her mother to her sister and then, last year, she successfully petitioned to become an emancipated minor.

So now Winter – who turned 18 on Thursday and is featured in the latest issue of PEOPLE – is applying to colleges and has hopes of becoming a social-justice lawyer.

“I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with the court system. But with what I’ve gone through, I think it’s really important to become a voice for abuse victims who have no voice,” says Winter. “I want to be able to make a difference.”

Winter has applied to over a dozen schools but hopes to attend college in Los Angeles so she can continue living with her sister and acting on her hit sitcom.

For more from Winter – including why she got a breast reduction at age 17 – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

And though she hopes to continue acting in addition to her judicial pursuits, her desire to stay in the spotlight has nothing to do with stardom.

“Having success and a platform like I currently have, I’m able to make a difference,” she says. “The most important thing we can do is leave a mark on this earth – not for ourselves to be remembered, but for us but to be remembered for something we did for other people. That’s really matters to me.”