June 12, 2014 at 9:29 AM ET
That Rashema Melson graduated at the top of her class surprised few at her Washington, D.C., high school. But that she maintained a 4.0 grade point average and is heading to one the nation’s top universities while living in a homeless shelter never fails to amaze anyone.
“Valedictorian. Full academic scholarship to Georgetown. It doesn't get any better than that,” said her principal Ian Roberts. “And her story is truly an inspiration.”
Eighteen-year-old Melson knows that story seems improbable for someone growing up in one of the harshest parts of the nation's capital.
“Life is not fair, but despite that harsh reality, you must keep striving for success through the pain, tears and feeling of lost hope,” she said in a commencement speech Wednesday at Anacostia High School.
Melson knows about unfair odds. Her father was killed before her first birthday, and for the past several years, she has lived with her mother and three siblings in a homeless shelter that once used to be a hospital. Melson said she considers the shelter a place to live, but not a home.
“There’s no furniture, no refrigerator. It’s just a place to be content with until you get to where you want to be,” she told NBC affiliate WRC.
Because of a lack of privacy and the amount of noise at the shelter, Melson found it difficult to do her homework. That prompted her to head to school every morning around 7:00 a.m. and stay for the next 13 hours, taking honors courses and competing in track. But Melson rarely spoke up about her family’s situation nor did she ever complain.
“I know that people look up to me and I always try to be the best example,” she said.
Melson said she hopes to study forensic pathology at Georgetown, although her more immediate dreams involve having her own room to study, as well as a place to shower in privacy.
“Never be afraid to go after your dreams, and regardless of the negative forecast that has been predicted upon us, beat the odds and let the sun shine," she told her fellow graduates.
“Each step we take is paved with possibilities. Now go unlock the door to your future.”