May 14, 2010— -- When Quiana Childress was a little girl, she knew what she wanted to be -- a doctor.
That dream didn't seem likely for Childress, who grew up in a family of 10 children fighting poverty in Arkansas.
"Sometimes, I would go to bed hungry," Childress recalled. "My mother would try to portion out the food for each one of us. Sometimes, it wasn't enough."
To support herself and her family, 16-year-old Quiana trained as a nursing assistant and went to work, but her home was falling apart.
"I guess my mother felt like it was too much for her. The problems were too much," she recalled. "And I came home one day and the boxes were packed. And she came up to me and told me she was leaving and that I needed to find a place to stay."
At 16, Quiana was homeless, sleeping in her only possession -- an old, used Pontiac.
"It was a scary time. I couldn't really sleep," she said. "Eventually, I just learned to pray and close my eyes."
Childress tried to keep working. She took on a second job while she was still in school. Every day began by waking up at 3 a.m. to study.
"I didn't want to be a burden on anybody," she said. "I did not want to take advantage of any situation. I just wanted a roof over my head, be able to go to school, play basketball, and just live what I would consider a normal life."
Still, anxiety and depression took such a toll on her health that she was ready to give it all up. She planned to quit school and work at whatever she could find.
"I was worn out," Childress recalled.
She came close to taking that step, but during a shift at the hospital, Quiana realized she wasn't the only one struggling in life. The patients were struggling, too.
"If I gave up, I would be giving up on them and on myself too," she said. "I felt like they need me. ... In a sense, they saved me."
On the days she couldn't believe in herself, she'd think of the faces of her patients looking up when she walked in the room. Childress decided to ask for help, calling relatives in Little Rock who offered her a place to live.
Person of the Week: Quiana Childress
Starting her life in a brand new school and a new place, Childress rededicated herself to the dream of what she always hoped to be.
This week, Childress graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, an historically black college, and she plans eventually to continue to medical school.
First Lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement speech, bringing Childress to tears by singling out her life experiences as inspiration to others to push through life's difficulties.
"Whenever you get discouraged," said Obama, "I want you to tell yourself that if Quiana Childress can go from being homeless to graduating with the highest GPA not just in the biology department, but in the entire School of Arts and Sciences, then surely you can overcome whatever adversity you face in your own life."
Quiana knows her life has a message, but she said it's not about the self, it's about others.
"What people can learn from my story is that there are a lot of ways to help people," she said. "Then you can make it through. Helping people heals us."