When Rashema Melson first walked across Georgetown University’s campus as a freshman in the fall of 2014, she told herself she was smart enough to be there, had worked hard enough to be there, deserved to be there. But she didn’t always believe her own pep talks.
Georgetown is an idyllic campus populated by many students who come to the Northwest Washington school from some of the nation’s wealthiest Zip codes. Melson had arrived from just across town, where she lived in a single room with her mother and two brothers at the homeless shelter located in the former D.C. General Hospital and next to the D.C. jail.
That room, lined with cots and packed with all their belongings, had been Melson’s residence while she attended Anacostia High School, where she earned straight A’s and graduated as valedictorian that spring. Her living conditions — the showers often had no hot water, she wore noise-canceling headphones so she could study — were a universe away from most of her new fellow scholars. And so as she began classes that fall, she felt intimidated.
Rashema Melson gets a hug and has her photo taken with her cousin Anthony Young after the 2019 Georgetown University graduation ceremony. (Robb Hill for the Washington Post)
“ ‘This is Georgetown University. Is this really where I belong?’ ” Melson remembered thinking.
[Just Asking: Anacostia High valedictorian on going from a homeless shelter to Georgetown]
On Saturday morning, the 23-year-old answered that question with a triumphant yes as she strode across the stage at Georgetown’s graduation ceremony. With a wide smile on her face and tears in her eyes, Melson accepted her diploma, a degree in justice and peace studies, and became the first person in her family to graduate from college.
“I literally got the chills as soon as they called my name,” Melson said as she stood in a sea of caps and gowns on the Healy Lawn on the Georgetown campus after the ceremony. Soon, she was swept up by well-wishers, including college friends, her high school track coaches, a cousin who drove up from Hampton, Va., and other close relatives — her younger brother, Edward Hendrix, a student athlete at Syracuse University, and her mother, Vanessa Brown.