Rashema Melson is no stranger to adversity. The 23-year-old, who had lived for three years in a Washington, D.C. shelter, made headlines as the valedictorian of Anacostia High School’s Class of 2014 with a full scholarship to Georgetown University.
On Saturday, Melson graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in justice and peace studies -- the first person in her family to graduate from college. Her next steps are a job at a service organization in D.C. and law school, she told ABC affiliate WJLA.
Melson spoke with ABC News last week, sharing her path to graduation and some of the hardships she endured throughout her life.
She grew up in southeast D.C., bouncing between public housing and homelessness, living in the infamous D.C. General Family Shelter -- the notoriously-troubled mega-shelter which closed last October.
“”How do you know that I am homeless? Because, am I supposed to look dirty? Am I supposed to stink? What does that mean?
She even, at one point, lived in an abandoned house. Melson said she used to wake up to the sting of bed bug bites, constantly changed schools and ate food straight from the can because there were no plates.
“My life has always been rough,” Melson told ABC News. “Homeless or not, in Southeast, it’s rough, regardless," she explained. "The circumstances are just rough due to the fact that we don’t have the tools or resources as everyone else.”
Reading and education helped Melson focus and imagine a different life for herself, and the support of her friends motivated her to finish her studies. She left Georgetown after her freshman year to get married, and when the marriage didn't work out, it was her friends who successfully urged her to return to Georgetown and complete her degree.
To people going through difficult situations, her advice is that things always get better in time.
"Just know that your blessing is there waiting for you, you just have to go get it," she said.
Melson told ABC News that she hopes someday that Americans will be able to entertain a more expansive view of homelessness.
“How do you know that I am homeless? Because, am I supposed to look dirty? Am I supposed to stink? What does that mean?” she wondered aloud.
“It’s not offensive when people do it but you really can’t tell anything from looking at a person.”