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Homeless Georgia teen graduates as valedictorian

Despite a life of adversity, poverty, and even homelessness, 18-year-old Chelesa Fearce is blazing a trail of academic success.
Courtesy of Chelsea Fearce
Courtesy of Chelsea Fearce

Despite a life of adversity, poverty, and even homelessness, 18-year-old Chelesa Fearce is blazing a trail of academic success. Growing up in Clayton County, Georgia, Chelesa, along with her mother and three siblings, frequently moved from shelter to shelter, even living in her family’s car in times of need.

Regardless of the obstacles in the way, Chelesa stayed focused on her goals: scoring high marks in high school and attending a good college.

Thursday Chelesa graduated with a 4.529 GPA from Charles Drew High School in Clayton County, making her class valedictorian. Thanks to taking college courses for the past two years, Chelesa will enter Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia later this year as a junior.

During Chelesa’s high school years, her mother, Reenita Shepard, was laid off from her job more than once, resulting in the family losing their home. But Chelesa stayed focused on her studies even when bouncing from shelter to shelter, or on those most difficult nights spent in the car.

“At night I just had to open my book in the dark and use my cellphone light, just do what I had to do,” she said.

Even with a heavy workload and irregular living conditions, Chelesa managed to make time for extra-curricular activities. She was a member of her school’s swim team and played the baritone for the Marching Band. Her favorite subjects in high school were chemistry and literature. In her free time, she enjoys reading, swimming, watching action movies and hanging with friends, just like any teenager.

Chelesa admitted that she faced many struggles and at times found it difficult to maintain a positive spirit. “It was hard sometimes. I kept my situation a secret because I didn’t want anyone to know my business; I just went to school and did what I had to do.” Still, there were times it could all be overwhelming. “Senior year was a lot, you know with applying for schools, scholarships and standardized tests and I’d want to sit back and just kick it and relax but I knew I had things to accomplish.”

Part of what kept Chelesa going was her mother. “She works very very hard and I made sure I was doing the same, if not more. She was always helping me out and was such a great support so I had to do it for her,” she said. Shepard often read to Chelesa and her siblings at a young age. “I remember her reading Mrs. Nelson Went Missing, Are You My Mother, a lot of Dr. Seuss. She developed my love for reading at a very early age,” Chelesa said.

At Spelman, Chelesa plans to double major in chemistry and philosophy and is excited to see what will come next. She gives advice for those going through similar situations as hers, “I would tell anyone with obstacles to always keep their faith and to think about the future. Work hard now, so that tomorrow will be worth living.”

Watch her interview with msnbc's Craig Melvin below: