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‘Terrific students can be found anywhere’: One scholar’s path from homeless shelter to halls of Georgetown

October 16, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
More than 1.2 million homeless students were enrolled in public schools last year. On top of homework, they face challenges like getting enough to eat and finding shelter that meets basic living standards. The NewsHour’s April Brown introduces one student who tackled all of that to become high school valedictorian and a freshman at one of the nation’s top universities.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Department of Education recently released data that showed there were more than 1.2 million homeless students enrolled in public schools last year, the highest ever.

As the nation’s educators continue to struggle with the problem, the “NewsHour”‘s April Brown tells the story of one Washington, D.C., teenager who defied the odds and may well inspire other kids in similar situations.

This story is another in our American Graduate series funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN: In many ways, Rashema Melson is a typical Georgetown University freshman. She graduated top of her high school class last year and now makes it a point to come early every day, so she can sit in the front row.

But Rashema’s path toward success has not been an easy one. Her father was killed when she was 7 months old, and she spent much of the last three years in a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter with her mother and two brothers, facts that she kept mostly secret while in high school.

RASHEMA MELSON, Georgetown University: It was nobody’s business. And if it was, I didn’t want to be pitied, I didn’t want to be looked down upon as if I couldn’t do it, because I’m a strong person.

CHISA PERRY, Anacostia High School: She was always smiling, very bubbly, very friendly, always the good morning or the hello.

APRIL BROWN: One person she eventually told was Anacostia High School teacher Chisa Perry, who was Rashema’s track and field coach. But for a long time, Perry didn’t know. And she says, regardless of what was happening at home, Rashema always remained upbeat and focused at school.

CHISA PERRY: The best way to describe Rashema would be determined. Anything she sets her mind to do, she will do it.

WOMAN: Rashema Melson!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

APRIL BROWN: That grit and determination was on display last June, as the 18-year-old gave her valedictorian speech at Anacostia High, a school that sits in one of the poorest sections of Washington.

RASHEMA MELSON: Life is not fair, but despite that harsh reality, you must keep striving for success.

APRIL BROWN: Rashema began taking classes at Georgetown this summer after receiving a full scholarship to the nation’s oldest Catholic university. She moved out of the homeless shelter and into student housing.

The homeless shelter where Rashema lived during the last few years of high school is only a few miles away from Georgetown, but the atmosphere could hardly be more different. That’s why she spent five weeks of her vacation here in a program designed to help ease the transition.

DENNIS WILLIAMS, Georgetown University: Schools like Georgetown, elite schools, sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that terrific students can be found anywhere, and to give ourselves the mechanism, the means to find them, bring them in and make sure that they are OK. And that’s what this program does.

APRIL BROWN: Dennis Williams, the associate dean of students at Georgetown, runs the summer bridge program that Rashema took part in. Known as Community Scholars, the program offers students tools to help them make it all the way to graduation.

These types of programs have become relatively common in universities across the country, particularly for students like Rashema, first-generation college-goers. Rashema has thus far been adjusting well academically. But Williams warns it can take a bit longer to adjust to some things outside the classroom.

DENNIS WILLIAMS: What’s unusual in Rashema’s case is that she is local, and so that she is from a part of the city that most Georgetown students know very little about, and that the part of the city where her high school is, most of the people in that neighborhood know very little bit about Georgetown. So it really is two separate worlds within the same — within the same city.

APRIL BROWN: Rashema is taking the transition in stride, but is skeptical of one label that many have already given her: role model.

RASHEMA MELSON: When people say I’m a role model, I tend to — I don’t mind. I don’t mind. I just don’t want anyone to put pressure on me, like, you have to be this way because people are watching you.

People are always going to watch me, but I’m always going to be myself, because if I’m not myself, you know, then who am I?

APRIL BROWN: Despite the fact her story has spread across the nation, Rashema says she hasn’t been paying much attention to the media coverage.

RASHEMA MELSON: What is funny is, I don’t even know where these articles are.

APRIL BROWN: For now, Rashema is focused on becoming a forensic pathologist and moving her family out of the shelter for good.

RASHEMA MELSON: I still see that picture in my head of me having my own house, and having my degrees on the wall, having a job to go to from 9:00 to 5:00, having a consistent paycheck, paying my own bills, and just being — being the woman that I always — I always wanted to be.

APRIL BROWN: Rashema says she has also started a scholarship foundation that she hopes will one day help students like her.

 

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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