"From no house to Morehouse." This was a caption in a newspaper article about Donald Washington Jr., who graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Morehouse College this past May.
People have been especially inspired by Washington's journey to the top of his class because of where he started out: as a teenager living alone in homeless shelters.
I first met Washington after he became a two-time winner of a Walter Dean Myers Scholastic Inc./Children's Defense Fund Fellowship, awarded to a diverse group of college students interested in a career in the publishing industry. Two years ago, the fund invited Washington to speak on a panel at our Beat the Odds reunion symposium at Georgetown Law School, where he shared his inspiring story. Washington is a role model for other young people who face difficult odds and for all who hold negative stereotypes about young Black males. I have been so impressed by this incredible young leader.
Washington, who is from the Maryland suburbs just outside Washington, D.C., wasn't always homeless. His mother suffers from fibromyalgia, an arthritis-related condition that causes chronic fatigue and pain. When his parents separated toward the end of his high school years, she found it difficult to continue working the several jobs she needed to pay the rent. Soon afterward, they became homeless.
Because men and women are separated in the local shelter system, at age 18 Washington found himself living on his own in the first of three different men's shelters. He later told a local newspaper, "The experience of living in a shelter system feels like an assault on your humanity. When you stand in line in soup kitchens and see generations of people not doing anything with their lives for whatever reason, the basic realization that your life has the potential to become that is scary … .
"For me, it was a frightening experience because I was trying to gauge what was going to happen to my future, and I didn't feel like I saw any future for myself."
Although his immediate circumstances seemed to make the future look bleak, Washington wasn't willing to let them kill his dreams and was surrounded by adults and mentors who recognized his potential and were eager to support him.
Shelter officials allowed Washington to take classes part-time and participate in extracurricular activities at a local community college rather than forcing him to cut back or quit school to fulfill work requirements. When Donald first won the prestigious Scholastic/ CDF fellowship, which involved spending the summers in New York City working at the publishing company, the shelter arranged to hold his space so he could accept the offer and still be guaranteed a bed when he returned.
He was editor-in-chief of his college newspaper, and his professors, who knew he was among their best students, encouraged him to take the next step by applying to transfer to Morehouse, his "dream school." Washington was accepted and won a full scholarship. At Morehouse, he just continued to soar.
Washington followed his two summers at Scholastic by interning with the Wall Street Journal's Atlanta bureau. He also traveled to Israel to study conflict resolution; he studied in Ghana; and had the chance to tour historical sites across Egypt. He was one of five winners of the Compton Mentor Fellowship for graduating seniors, allowing him to spend this year running a project in Atlanta called "The Peacemakers: Redeem the Dream Youth Leadership Program." It conducts nonviolence and conflict resolution training with youths and adults. In the future, Washington is considering a possible dual degree in law and public policy and maybe a career in journalism or international diplomacy.
I am so proud of all Washington has already accomplished and am so grateful he was never willing to give up. Like many other people, I can't wait to see what Donald Washington Jr.'s future holds.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.