On Wednesday, Rashema Melson will graduate at the top of her class as the valedictorian of Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. She's headed to Georgetown University this fall on a full scholarship.
Melson has excelled at her homework — but for the past six years, she hasn't had a home to do that work in. She currently lives in the D.C. General homeless shelter, along with her mother and two brothers. The shelter houses up to 300 adults and 500 children and has come under scrutiny for its poor conditions.
Melson, 18, tells NPR's Audie Cornish that after school, a typical night involves reluctantly heading back to the shelter around 9:30 p.m.
"I try to stay out as late as possible," she says. "I wouldn't say it's my favorite place."
Among the many frustrations of shelter life are long security checks and noise. Because of the second, she would often wake up in the middle of the night just to do her homework in peace. Melson says she didn't keep her homelessness a secret from classmates — but didn't offer up the information either.
"I don't like sharing with kids because they start to pity you or they start to look at you in a different way," she says. "And I feel like, 'Hey, I'm just like the rest of you. I come in to get an education.' "
Even Melson isn't sure how she's managed to successfully juggle school (a 4.0 GPA), athletics (cross-country, track, volleyball) and homelessness. "I just know when I have a goal, I try not to let anything get in the way," she says.
That goal, even before becoming homeless, has been to graduate from medical school and become a forensic pathologist. She says her father's murder when she was a baby inspired her to pursue the career.
But it's never been easy.
"Along the way, we stumbled and we started struggling as a family," she says.
When those struggles began, she considered quitting sports and getting a job. But her coaches and teachers convinced her otherwise.
"They were just like, 'Don't worry, you're doing the best you can — keep it up, just do what you have to do,' " she says. "They were always there for me. They took a lot of stress from my mind."
But she says she still worries about what will happen to her family after she heads off to college in the fall, even if the campus is just a few miles away. She's hopeful her younger brother, who's 14 years old and a talented athlete, will continue to find a haven in sports.
In the meantime, she has advice for other homeless kids: Don't let your situation define you.
"I would just say keep your head up because you never know what's going to happen," she says. "You just have to have hope and faith and don't let it change who you are. Don't become ashamed and don't be embarrassed. And just know who you are inside. Because you live in a shelter — that's not who you are, that's just where you reside at for the moment."
She says it's the best advice she can give; it's what she tells herself.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's graduation day for Rashema Melson. She is at the top of her class, valedictorian at Anacostia High School here in D.C. She has excelled in class and on her homework. But for the past six years, she hasn't had a home. Melson lives in a homeless shelter, along with her mother and two brothers. In the fall, she will be heading to Georgetown University on a full scholarship. I asked Rashema Melson to tell me how she manages.
RASHEMA MELSON: A typical night is me coming home around 9:30-ish. I try to stay out as late as possible. I wouldn't say it's my favorite place. I will come in, you know, I'll talk to my brother for a little bit. If I do have extra work still left over, I'll either put my headphones in, do my work or I usually, because I'm so tired, I'll go to sleep and I'll wake up in the middle of the night and I'll do some work and I'll go back to sleep. So however it is to get the job done, whatever fits, then I'll just do that because sometimes it is really noisy. And, you know, going through security check is frustrating sometimes just in case you, like, leave your ID and you have so much on your mind. But I think I've done pretty good with blocking it out.
CORNISH: And we should mention that at this shelter, they service up to 300 adults and 500 kids.
MELSON: Yes, yeah it's a lot. I don't know how I did it. I just know when I have a goal I try not to let anything get in my way. So I just decided to continue what I'm doing.
CORNISH: What was the goal here? I mean, it wasn't just about graduating, right? It sounds like you are aiming for much more.
MELSON: The goal that I have always had was to complete high school, graduate college, go to med school, finish residency and become a forensic pathologist.
CORNISH: A forensic pathologist? OK.
MELSON: Along the way, we stumbled and we started struggling as a family and because I got school, you know, I'm straight up academics. I'm really good at that. It's not really a struggle to me. But I do try - I pick sports over getting a job. And it was just, like, am I making the right decision? So it was a little pressure on me. Like my coaches, my teachers they were just like don't worry, you're doing the best you can, you know, keep it up. Just do what you have to do. They was like, you know, live your life. You're going to succeed. Don't worry about your situation at the moment. Like, they were always there for me. They took a lot of stress from my mind because it was just like, well, I need a job --what am I going to do? And I was like, should I go work under the table? Or can I get a real job? 'Cause I just turned 18 last year.
CORNISH: So your teachers and your coaches had some idea that your family was struggling and that you were homeless. Did your friends know? And did you feel like you had to kind of keep that from them a little bit?
MELSON: No, I feel like I don't think have to keep anything from anyone. I feel like, if it's none of your business, then it's just none of your business. But it's not really something - I don't like sharing with kids 'cause they start to, like, pity you or they start to look at you in a different way. And, you know, I feel hey, I'm just like the rest of you. I come in to get an education and just, like, you know, OK. So I didn't feel like I needed to share that. Like at the end of the day, I was doing what I had to do.
CORNISH: Now that you're getting ready to go to school, what are your worries for your family?
MELSON: I literally - I had like a little breakdown because, you know, I watched the news and my mom also goes to the meetings that they have there. And it's like oh, we're going to close the shelter down in 100 days. They said that last month. And it's been all over the news about the conditions of the shelter. I was just thinking like man, I'm going to college. You know, I'm happy for me but at the same time, what is my family going to? I'm - I mean, I'm worried but there's nothing that I can personally do. And, you know, if you can't personally do anything about it, don't stress yourself out too bad because it doesn't really hurt anyone at the end of the day but you. You know, that's just how I feel.
CORNISH: What kind of advice would you give to other students who are experiencing homelessness?
MELSON: I would just say keep your head up because you never know what's going to happen. I'm graduating homeless and I'm moving into college so, you know, you just have to have hope and faith, you know, and don't let it change who you are and don't become ashamed and don't be embarrassed and just know who you are inside. Because you live in a shelter that's not who you are, that's just where you reside at for the moment. That's the best advice that I could give. That's what I tell myself.
CORNISH: Well, Rashema Melson, thank you so much for coming in to talk with us and congratulations.
MELSON: Thank you.
CORNISH: Rashema Melson will be at Georgetown University next year on a full scholarship. Her message in tonight's valedictorian address at Anacostia High School - persevere, no matter what.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.