Making an impact: From homeless high school valedictorian to Georgetown University grad

This student defied the odds and graduated from Georgetown, despite challenges. Here's her story

By Team XQ


In addition to our work to rethink and transform high school in America, we’re committed to sharing the stories of people working for good in their communities. This is Rashema’s story.

“I want people to look at me and say, ‘She did it, I can do it.’” 

Growing up in Washington, D.C., is to grow up in a city of contrasts. It is a place defined by the most powerful people in the nation, whose words and actions routinely reverberate across the globe. And, as originally reported by The Washington Post’s Joe Heim, it is also home to people like Rashema Melson, who, when she was in grade school and high school, was one of the 5500 students affected by homelessness within the city’s borders.

As a child, Rashema moved and moved often. Over the course of her youth, she attended 10 grade schools and 3 high schools. Over the years of constant movement, she studied and excelled: “Since I was 10 years old, it was clear to me that education would be my way out of poverty and my way to give back to my community.” 

Through the instability of homelessness and the challenges it presented – the necessity of noise-cancelling headphones to study, the bedbug bites, the lack of hot meals and hot showers – she persevered to become the valedictorian at Anacostia High School, while earning a full scholarship at Georgetown University.

Yet, when she arrived at the campus, she said to herself, “This is Georgetown University. Is this really where I be­long?” 

As Rashema’s story was picked up and shared across the country, the pressures of expectation continued to build—the expectation to remain a visible and accessible source of inspiration, to not only succeed but to excel, to be a wayfinder for the underserved and underresourced: “It’s just so much and I think that’s what people don’t understand when you are going through circumstances it’s just not one thing there is A LOT going on.”

In spite of everything, Rashema continued to work toward her goal. This summer, she graduated with a degree in justice and peace studies, and became the first person in her family to graduate from college. As for what comes next? “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.”