Rashema Melson was among the more than 1,750 undergraduates who received diplomas from Georgetown University last weekend.
Before she attended college on a full scholarship, Melson graduated at the top of her class as the valedictorian of Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C.
She was also living with her mother and brothers at D.C. General, a family homeless shelter that shut down last year.
Now, five years after she started college, 23-year-old Melson has graduated with a degree in justice and peace studies. She plans to return to her community to work for a few years before attending law school.
"I don't want to just be someone who makes a lot of money and donates," she says. "I want to get in there and actually do something. I want to mentor. I want to change laws. I want to do something that's really going to make an impact."
On her first few years at Georgetown
I worked at the financial aid office for the first three years. For the first two years, I was very sheltered, and I didn't go out a lot, at all actually. I even avoided the dining hall. ... I felt that I've come to Georgetown to get a degree, and there was a lot of pressure on me from a lot of people to do great, and it kind of boxed me in, and I kind of mentally let it get to me.
On how she responded to the pressure to succeed
I did the cowardly thing, and I left Georgetown. I was getting married at the time. But in my head it was a way for me to escape all of the pressure and expectations. And while I was [at a military base where she lived with her husband], I realized that I had way more talent and ambition and so many other things to accomplish that I couldn't settle for less. And so I decided to get up and come back.
On the decision to return to Georgetown
Coming back was amazing. Deciding to come back was amazing, because then I knew what I was really set out to do. I was ready to execute and conquer any challenge that stood in my way.
On how the rest of her family is doing
My mom is in an apartment. My brother just finished his first year at Syracuse University [on a football scholarship]. ... I think that him seeing me being the first one in our nuclear family to actually graduate from college lets him know that he can do anything.
On what she hopes to accomplish in the future
While at Georgetown and while seeing the opportunity that I had that others don't have from where I come from, I really want to make a difference. ...
I want to pour love into our system. I want to let people know that they matter, and I don't think that's happening enough, which is why we tend to give up on ourselves. But soon, all the statistics about us will be changing for the better.
Natalie Brennan produced and Dave Blanchard edited this story for broadcast. Maureen Pao adapted it for the Web.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're now going to turn to Rashema Melson. She and I first spoke in 2014 when she was graduating as valedictorian of Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. She'd been living in a homeless shelter with her mother and brother. Just last weekend, she graduated from Georgetown University. I spoke with Rashema again today and started with a clip from our previous interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
RASHEMA MELSON: A typical night is me coming home around 9:30ish. I usually - 'cause 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 then I'll go back to sleep.
CORNISH: Do you remember what it was like to try and do your homework in a shelter?
MELSON: I do. And just listening to how my voice sounded, you could hear how drained I was and how tired I was. And just hearing how better I sound now, I'm in a better space now.
CORNISH: What was your typical day like in college?
MELSON: For the first two years, I was very sheltered, and I didn't go out a lot - at all actually. I even avoided the dining hall.
CORNISH: How come?
MELSON: I was very tunnel vision, so I felt that, you know, I've come to Georgetown to get a degree. And I was - at the time, I was still dealing with the media. And it was a lot of pressure on me from a lot of people to do great, and it kind of boxed me in. And I kind of mentally let it get to me.
CORNISH: Was there a sense where you felt like, I can't fail?
MELSON: Yes. And so I did the cowardly thing, and I left Georgetown. I was getting married at the time. He was on a military base. And so to me, it was just like, this is a way for me to escape all of the pressure and expectations. And while I was there, I realized that I have way more talent and ambition and so many other things to accomplish that I couldn't settle for less. And so I decided to get up and come back.
CORNISH: That decision to come back - what was that like?
MELSON: Deciding to come back was amazing because then I knew what I was really set out to do. I was ready to execute and conquer any challenge that stood in my way.
CORNISH: One of the things that was hardest for me when I was in college was adjusting to how casually everybody spent money - right? - 'cause I was just used to not having any. Were there things that you also, like, felt like you had to adjust to living in the dorms and...
MELSON: See; me, I'm not an adjuster. What I do is I make change. And so when I got to campus - I would say, for starters, my roommate - she comes from a middle-class family. And we were in bed one day, and she said, you know, I want a color printer 'cause this black-and-white isn't working for me. And I was just like, I grew up without a home; you're complaining about a printer. That's a little ungrateful, don't you think? And me and her always tell this story - just the advantages that you don't look at. So when you talk about people spending money, I never feel like I need to adjust or get used to it. I just speak upon my life experiences, and people use it to change for the better.
CORNISH: What's next for you? What are you going to be looking forward to in terms of your career?
MELSON: The next step is to work for a service organization for maybe a year or two, and then I'll be headed off to law school. I know at first I said I was going to med school, but it's something about...
CORNISH: In fact, you said forensic pathologist.
CORNISH: You were very specific (laughter).
MELSON: I was very specific in what I wanted to do. But while at Georgetown and while seeing the opportunity that I had, I really want to make a difference. I want to mentor. I want to change laws. I want to pour love into our system. I want to really let people know that they matter. And I don't think that's happening enough, which is why we tend to give up on ourselves. But soon all the statistics about us will be changing for the better.
CORNISH: Well, Rashema Melson, thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations.
MELSON: Thank you. Thank you.
CORNISH: And we should mention that Rashema's mom is now living in an apartment in D.C. Her brother is going to Syracuse University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.