ERICA WONG/THE HOYA Rashema Melson (COL ’18) has settled in on the Hilltop.
ERICA WONG/THE HOYA
Rashema Melson (COL ’18) has settled in on the Hilltop.

The trip from D.C. General Homeless Shelter to Georgetown may only take about 20 minutes, but for Rashema Melson (COL ’18), that journey has been years in the making.

The freshman, who graduated as valedictorian of the District of Columbia’s Anacostia High School in June after being homeless for more than half a decade, now attends Georgetown on a full scholarship.

In a high school where over 80 percent of students ranked below proficient in reading and math, Melson’s story offered a glimpse into the ways hard work can pay off.

“Throughout my journey … I have learned that time doesn’t wait, pity or adjust for or to anyone, and life is not fair. Life is not fair,” Melson said during her valedictory address this spring. Her  enrollment at Georgetown was covered by media outlets across the country.

Melson’s roommate Whitney Wantong (COL ’18) said that she was not aware of Melson’s history when they first moved into their room in August, even though her mother had posted an article about it on Facebook this summer.

“I didn’t realize her story when I met her,” Wantong said. “It was until she told me about it after I noticed different reporters coming to talk to her or film her that she told me why this is all happening. I kind of put two and two together and realized this was the girl my mom had told me about.”

Melson, who ran track in high school, said that she is holding off on getting involved in extracurricular activities at Georgetown, instead choosing to focus on her academics as she gets adjusted to college life.

During high school, Melson lived at D.C. General Homeless Shelter. According to NPR, the shelter, which served as a hospital until 2001, now houses up to 300 adults and 500 children

Although Melson said she never felt unsafe at the shelter, The Washington Post published a report in July citing a number of recurring problems at D.C. General. The article stated that dangerous living conditions at the shelter have caused nearly 30 people over the past two years to be hospitalized or treated. The health concerns include parasites, insect bites, rashes, dirty showers and other problems related to the facility’s poor maintenance.

“You know, you have to look at what you’ve got and be thankful that there is a roof over your head,” Melson said. “I think that when you have your eye on a goal, there is no such thing as a distraction because you really want to get that goal. I don’t think anything really has the power to distract you from it.”

For Melson, that goal is becoming a forensic pathologist to help solve crimes.

“I wanted to work with the dead for some reason after my father’s death,” Melson said “I wanted to get into helping people like family members learn how their family members died or who [committed] the crime.”

Although Melson lives on Georgetown’s campus, her family continues to live at the homeless shelter eight miles away.

“It’s really hard,” Melson’s mother Vanessa Brown told CNN in an interview in late July. “But I just have to let [Rashema] know that no matter what, we still are going to survive.”

Melson’s family found out in the past few months that D.C. General is facing closure and the residents must find new locations to live. According to Melson, her family has yet to find another living situation.

“I haven’t been there [at the shelter] in a couple weeks. And the last time I was, the mayor was there, and he was saying he was going to help people. But I honestly don’t believe that,” Melson said.

In spite of the difficulty facing her family, Melson created the nonprofit Rashema Melson Scholarship Foundation this past summer to help disadvantaged teenagers achieve their goals of going to college. The scholarship will be offered to students across the country after enough money is raised.

Melson said that she started the scholarship foundation as a way to give back after all of the support she has received, and also because she hopes to support people like her who are trying to rise above their circumstances and succeed.

“There’s no limit to where the struggle is, there’s no limit to people who do hard work,” Melson said.

Nicole Berroa (COL ’18), one of Melson’s suitemates during the Community Scholars Program, a five-week academic summer program for incoming freshmen,  said that compassion is an essential part of who Melson is.

“She’s just very giving, very loving and very caring,” Berroa said. “She listens to you. She has a very motherly personality and likes to take care of people.”

Melson will share her story by delivering a keynote address at the Evidence-Based Programs for Children, Youth and Families Fourth Annual D.C. Summit on Oct. 8. The event is sponsored by the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health and will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center near Mt. Vernon Square.

“I plan to encourage people to just keep going,” Melson said. “And I want to encourage people by using my story. You can do anything and can achieve whatever you put your hard work toward.”

Hard work is something Melson knows a good deal about, according to Wantong.

“She’s definitely hardworking. I have seen very few people put as much effort into things as she does,” Wantong said. “And she also has this very positive way of life where she has this good love for herself, a very healthy love for herself.”

 

Correction: The article originally described D.C. General Homeless Shelter as one of Washington, D.C.’s housing projects. A housing project typically refers to housing owned by the government or a nonprofit and rented out at affordable prices to low-income families. D.C. General is a homeless shelter, not a housing project.

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4 Comments

  1. Way to go, Rashema!

  2. a homeless shelter is not a housing project. both of them exist in the district of columbia, but they are very different things. perhaps this error says something about the background of this reporter

  3. Adrianne Hamilton says:

    DC General was a hospital that was turned into a homeless shelter but is in no way a housing project. Where will Rashema go during the summer? Can’t the university help her family in any way? As an alum I would like to help. How can Rashema be successful if her immediate family has nowhere to live?

  4. “In a high school where over 80 percent of students ranked below proficient in reading and math, Melson’s story offered a glimpse into the ways hard work can pay off.”

    Implying that Melson is the only student in her class who worked hard is quite a bold move. While I absolutely tip my hat to Melson and her incredible achievements (which will only accumulate in number as she continues her education), the wording of this sentence seems to suggest that Melson’s classmates weren’t trying, that they weren’t also interested in educational success.

    Perhaps such a sentiment was not the intention of the author… and if that is the case, I simply suggest a higher standard of writing quality.

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