10 Inspiring College Success Stories of Students Who Overcame Obstacles

The dream of achieving an education does not come easy to all. Obstacles such as extreme poverty, homelessness, age, single parenthood and even brushes with the law could have stopped any of these students from earning their college degrees–and yet, they overcame the odds. 

At Universities.com, we recognize the very real barriers that people in different stages of life face, from financial hardship to racial disparities to access to quality education. Ensuring that all people can reach their dreams of earning the education that they dream of is a goal that, as a society, we will strive for together. And we hope that these stories of 10 people who faced tremendous obstacles and were able to reach the finish line of their education will inspire and help us recognize the difficulties that many individuals face in pursuing higher education. 

Ieshia Champs: A single mother of 5 who grew up in foster care and graduated law school with Honors

Being a mom of five children is no easy task in itself, but being a single mom of five children and graduating law school with honors? Well, that’s a feat that’s downright remarkable. 

Ieshia Champs is that mother, profiled in her local news, for her inspiring story of going from growing up in foster care to becoming a single mother to five children to graduating with honors with a law degree from Texas Southern University Law School. 

Champs’ story is one with plenty of twists and turns: she herself had a difficult childhood, growing up in foster care and bouncing from home to home. At one point, she dropped out of school and was even homeless in both 8th and 11th grade. At the age of 19, she had her first child and then, a series of tragedies: her mother died, her children’s father passed away from cancer, she lost her house in a fire and she contemplated suicide. 

In 2009, at the encouragement of the church she was attending, she achieved her GED and then, kept going. Although making it through her degree program was a struggle–her kids recalled hearing her cry and pitching in to make meals so she could keep studying–she kept going. 

When she did graduate from law school, Champs posed for pictures with her children, all displaying chalkboard signs that celebrated the big day. Champs’ chalkboard read, “I did it!” while her children proclaimed different supportive messages that reflected the journey the entire family had been on, like “I helped!” and “We did it!” and “Me too!” The pictures quickly went viral, sharing her story with the rest of the world.

Bianca Jeannot: Worked four jobs and cared for two disabled brothers while uplifting them out of homelessness and poverty through education

Bianca Jeannot has been through a lot in her 22 years of life. She and her family lived in homeless shelters for 7 years and when she was only 18, she lost her mother, who was a single parent. With her mother’s death, Bianca Jeannot became the head of the household, which meant taking over the care of her two disabled brothers. 

In order to provide the financial support they all needed and continue school, Jeannot performed the seemingly impossible: she held down four jobs while caring for her two disabled brothers and working on her degree at the College of New Rochelle. The hardworking teen worked three on-campus jobs and one off-campus job. Her support helped care for her two brothers back home in the Bronx, one with renal failure, the other born with Down Syndrome. Incredibly, Jeannot also managed to find time to edit the school’s literary magazine, founded an anime club, and became her family’s first college graduate, graduating with honors. “I think my mom would be super proud,” Jeannot said in a video with ABC News

Dr. Daniel Geiter: From convicted felon to opening Illinois’ first liberal arts college by an African American group

Daniel Geiter is a doctor in Higher Education, but he started his path to education in a way: by becoming convict #51137. After serving time for a total of 25 criminal charges he committed as a young man, Geiter struggled when he was released and realized the full impact of the barriers that ex-convicts faced. 

For instance, he was hired for the only job that he could find–as a dishwasher at Uno’s Pizzeria, making $8/hour. But after only two days, he was fired because his background check came back, revealing he was a convicted felon. “In every way, I was discriminated against, because previously, I committed a crime. That means a lifetime of arbitrary consequences,” he noted in his TEDx talk. “Because of a mistake I made in my past, I was no longer eligible to be a full-blown citizen.” 

With his history as a convict, Geiter has faced a lifetime of what he calls “lived dualities”: one as the convict #51137 he will always be known in the system and the other, as the highly-educated doctor and professor he went on to be. Although he noted that still, to this day, could never qualify to serve a McDouble burger or a sweet tea at McDonald’s because of his background, he was able to change his life by pursuing higher education. He started by earning his GED and taking college courses while still serving his sentence and following his release and a subsequent business failure in 1998, ended up enrolling in Moraine Valley in 2009. After graduation, he was accepted into Xavier College, where he struggled financially, even losing electrically after being unable to pay his bills. After begging for help via a letter he wrote to all the school’s administrators, a kind nun named Sister Sue helped him procure the financial resources he needed to get his bills paid and continue his education. With her encouragement, he was accepted into the University of Chicago, then onto his doctoral degree in the Higher Education and Organization Change Program at Benedictine University.

Today, he is a doctor, a professor, and has made history by becoming the first African American group to open a private, liberal arts college, Ward College, in Illinois. Appearing in a TEDx talk in a bright orange jumpsuit and handcuffs hanging around his shoulders, Dr. Geiter discussed his platform for advocating about the impact education can have on the trajectory of the lives of people who have been incarcerated. “I realized that one of the great possibilities in the world is to change individuals who have been incarcerated through education,” he said in his talk.

Dawn Loggins: Once cleaned bathrooms as a janitor at her high school now she’s an Ivy League school graduate

Dawn Loggins didn’t have a typical senior year. Back in 2012, instead of enjoying some downtime or stressing every spare minute about college applications, Loggins was waking up early to get to school before the rest of her classmates–to put in a before-school shift as a janitor. 

Before the rest of her peers rolled into school, Loggins was cleaning bathrooms, scrubbing floors, and wiping down the very desks she would occupy later in the day as a student. After 7 hours at school taking AP and honor classes, Loggins didn’t get to head home to enjoy an after-school snack or downtime either. Instead, she clocked back in for another two-hour stint on janitorial duty. To end the night, homework, until 2 AM, and then she’s back up early to do it all over again. 

“I don’t mind cleaning,” Loggins told CNN. “If you have to wade through trash to get to your desk, you’re not going to have an environment that encourages learning.” 

While the teen was clearly hardworking, it wasn’t immediately obvious to school officials how badly Loggins needed the financial support her job provided, until she asked her boss for candles one day. The reason? Without electricity at home, she wanted a way to do her homework at night. Her home also didn’t have running water, so Loggins described how her family would fill up water jugs from a nearby park to keep for flushing toilets and cooking. Even more shocking, while Loggins was at summer school, she tried calling home, only to find out the phones had been disconnected and her parents had moved away–without her. When the school realized the extent of the neglect Loggins had been living with, they surrounded her with support. Instead of turning her over to the state, the community took her in, providing her with housing and food and clothing and helping her to apply for college. Her history teacher wrote a recommendation letter for Loggins that simply told her story: a remarkable one of somehow rising above the drug abuse, extreme neglect, poverty, and homelessness that had marked her young life. 

And the efforts paid off: Loggins was accepted into Harvard University. Today, according to her LinkedIn profile, Loggins continues her studies at Harvard and works as a motivational speaker, speaking to issues that include education, homelessness, and women and youth empowerment. 

Alfonso Gonzales: 96-year-old WWII vet and USC’s oldest graduate

Many people dream of the moment they will walk across their college graduation stage to accept the diploma that they’ve worked so hard for–and in Alfonso Gonzales’ case, that moment was extra special. Although at the age of 96, Gonzales wheeled, not walked, across the stage, the moment was still everything he hoped for. As the entire crowd of staff, students and faculty erupted into applause and a standing ovation, Gonzales raised his hand in victory with a smile that lit up the entire room.

It took Gonzales six decades to complete the degree he started out to finish. A native of Longpope, he first started towards his degree as a zoology student in 1947. According to Gonzales, real life took over and as he began working with his brothers, he never made time to actually attend his school’s graduation. Years later, when his niece tried to help him by picking up the diploma for him, the family was shocked to learn that he was actually one credit shy of graduation. The school, in response, actually created a one-credit course just for Gonzales so he could complete his degree. “I did this for my family,” Gonzales said on stage at the commencement ceremony. “I did this to inspire them.” 

The World War II vet earned his college degree from USC in 2016, making him the school’s oldest graduate. And after all that hard work, the new college graduate had only one big plan to embark on post-commencement: “I’m going to go take my siesta,” he quipped. We’d say that’s one nap well-earned. 

Tiana Barnwell: From child abuse survivor to foster care to a bright future through education

As a teenager, Tiana Barnwell lost the motivation to care about her future–and knowing what she had endured in escaping abuse in her original home, is completely understandable. The young woman had been through trauma and making plans for her future wasn’t something that was on her radar when survival was her only goal. 

Barnwell showed enormous courage in speaking out about being molested in her home at only the age of 14, and that courage proved to be a spark that would carry her through the rest of her teen years. She graduated from high school and was accepted into Spelman College, a moment that she called “the happiest day of her life.”

Despite her happiness in pursuing her college degree, however, she struggled to find her footing. The teen told Good Morning America that she went through a “dark place” and that the displacement caused upheaval in many ways in her life. “It had a negative impact…,” she explained. “I started acting out in school, I started cutting class. I kind of just didn’t care, which is terrible because these were the years that were molding my future. I kind of lost sight of Spelman and I lost sight of my goals.”

Fortunately, the foster care agency she was placed with, The New York Foundling, was able to connect her to resources that helped her. The team worked with teachers, social workers, and therapists to help her through her experiences and refocus on her future.  “I have plans for after graduation,” the teen told GMA. “I know what I’m doing and it fills me with joy.” While working towards her degree at Spelman (she graduated in May 2019), Barnwell was also able to serve as the VP of the school’s first group for LGBTQ+ individuals. Today, according to her LinkedIn profile, Barnwell has experience working with Goldman and Sachs and now serves as a consultant for Guidehouse.

Ka’Juan Garrett: Child abuse survivor who earned a full-ride university scholarship

Ka’Juan Garrett, who graduated from high school in 2019, earned a full-ride scholarship to Rowan University to further his education. But it’s his back story that is so moving–the young senior is a child abuse survivor who chose to leave his home, enter the foster care system and live with a friend during his last two years of school. 

“I tried to take a negative and turn it into a positive,” he told a local news station

The multi-sport athlete, band member, and honor roll student also found support from his court-appointed guardian, Sugar Ray Coney, who sung the young man’s praises and shared the wisdom he tried to impart on Garret: “If someone makes you mad, success is the greatest revenge” he explained. 

Not only did Garret endure horrific abuse as a child, but he has always exhibited a tremendous amount of courage and strength in sharing his story for the purpose of helping other children like him. The news story on Garret noted how incredibly difficult it is to break the cycle of abuse, with children suffering such trauma that their mental health suffers too greatly or they are unable to find resources to help. “You have to forgive to be able to move on and do what you have to do and pursue who you want to be,” Garrett said. He planned to study social work with his scholarship and eventually care for children, who like him, are in abusive situations at home. 

Josselyn Sanchez: Dedicated her college degree to her migrant field worker mother for making her dreams possible 

Mothers are notorious for sacrificing for the betterment of their children and Josselyn Sanchez’s mother is no different–the hardworking migrant field worker from Mexico dedicated her life to raising Josselyn, putting aside any dreams she may have had for herself in order to make enough money to care for her daughter. 

A Salinas, Calif. native, Sanchez explained in a video interview that because her mother had always been a hard worker, working in the fields even through her pregnancy, she grew up attending a lot of educational programs for the children of migrant workers. It was the early exposure to education, she said, that really sparked her love of learning. 

Now, Sanchez has become a first-generation college graduate, earning her BA in psychology from Sac State. When she graduated, dedicated her degree to the woman who made it possible. She returned back home to Salinas to take graduation photos with her mom in front of the very fields her mom still works. Poised in her graduation gown, Sanchez is a sharp contrast to her mother, clad in a hoodie, baseball cap and jeans to block out the sun while she works. In the image, Sanchez is handing the degree to her mom, because, as she described, she wanted to give the degree back to her mom because she’s the one who worked so hard doing a job people look down on so she and her siblings could have better opportunities. 

 “My mom always says you have to know where you came from to know where you’re going,” she says.

Khadijah Williams: From homeless shelters to Harvard 

By the time she turned 18, Khadijah Williams had attended twelve schools in as many years. She had lived in shelters, in parks, and in motels, never in a permanent residence for more than a few months.  She had endured the leering of pimps and drug dealers, and the tauntings of students at a dozen schools who pegged her as “different.” 

Homeless since early childhood, Khadijah struggled all her life to hide her circumstances from teachers and fellow students. However, academics proved to be a way for her to find confidence in herself again. For instance, at the age of 9, she placed in the 99th percentile on a state exam, and her teacher told her she was “gifted.” From that moment forward, Khadijah decided to do whatever it took to keep herself in that category. “I was so proud of being smart I never wanted people to say, ‘You got the easy way out because you’re homeless,’” she told The LA Times. “I never saw it as an excuse.”

By sophomore year of high school, she realized that she could not succeed in getting the education she dreamed of without getting help to go beyond what her current school could offer. She talked to teachers and counselors who helped her apply to summer community college classes, scholarships, and enrichment programs. And in 11th grade, when she enrolled at Jefferson High School, she decided to complete the rest of her school career there — a decision that meant taking a bus each morning at 4 a.m. and not getting home until 11 p.m.

Her perseverance and hard work paid off, however, when she poured the story of her life into her Harvard University college application–and was accepted. 

Once Khadijah felt ready to tell her story, it won her notice not only from college admissions boards but also from the news media, including Oprah, who profiled Khadijah on her show. Now a successful student at Harvard, Khadijah continues to use the lessons of her extraordinary life to help and inspire other students.

Aduei Riak: A “Lost Girl of Sudan” war orphan at the age of 6, she walked thousands of miles to seek refuge

To meet Aduei Riak, you’d never guess the horrors she experienced as a young girl in Sudan. Poised and well-spoken, Aduei prefers to talk about her friends and family, her goals, and her bright vision of the future, rather than the years she spent in refugee camps and on the run from the political upheaval across Africa.

“I’ve seen a lot of things that a person of my age should not have been exposed to,” Aduei told USA Today. “The (memories) tend to be very dark and gray. I don’t like talking about them, because for me talking about them is living them again.”

Aduei’s story begins at age 6 when she was separated from her family during a civil war in Ethiopia. Following their separation, the young girl–at the same age her U.S. peers were in kindergarten — was on her own. She soon joined the thousands of orphans from similarly torn-apart families who walked over a thousand miles to find refuge. These children, often called The Lost Girls of Sudan, eventually found the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where Aduei remained from ages 8-16.

In 2000, Aduei arrived in The United States as one of only 89 girls in a group of more than 4,000 orphans in a Lost Boys and Girls resettlement program. She joined a foster family in Belmont, Massachusetts, and began attending high school despite the fact that she spoke barely any English. She devoted herself to her studies, however, and mastered the language by spending hours watching television shows like Sesame Street. Her foster family also engaged a number of tutors to help Aduei advance her lessons. 

Within just a couple of years, Aduei had become a top student, and in 2003 she was accepted at Brandeis University, one of the most prestigious schools in The United States. Upon graduation in 2007, Aduei was presented with an award for integrating social activism and academic study and was also named a Justice Louis Brandeis Scholar. Since graduating from The London School of Economics and Political Science, Aduei has campaigned against genocide in Darfur, was a keynote speaker at the International Women’s Leadership Conference, and is starting a foundation to help girls in Sudan receive an education. Aduei is also being featured in a documentary film that tells the story of the Lost Girls of Sudan, entitled, Like River, A Girl.

Resources For First-Generation College Students

What these students have gone through is remarkable considering their circumstances. Their ability to connect to resources and support to help them further their education also points to an encouraging growing trend among college students–a large percentage of college enrollees are also first-generation college students. 

For instance, according to the most recent 2019 data from The Center for First-Generation College Students Success, 46% of students at 4-year public institutions are first-generation college students. (For the record, the Center defines a “first-generation student” as an undergraduate student whose parents do not have a bachelor’s or higher degree.) At public 2-year institutions, that number is even higher at 64% of students as first-generation. The highest of all were private, for-profit 4-year institutions, with 72% of students as first-generation. 

The fact that there are so many students who are the first in their families to go to school is not only life-changing for them, but also has a trickle-down effect for the future as well. For instance, there are more female first-generation students–at 60%, compared to 52% of males–and 30% of those female students also have dependents of their own to care for. Coming from families where the average median income is $41,000, the financial doors that a college degree can open are life-changing. For instance, according to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) the poverty rate is 3.5X lower for those with a Bachelor’s degree than a high school diploma alone. Annually, people with a Bachelor’s degree earn around $32,000 more than those with a high school diploma, and that gap continues to widen. Recent statistics show that millennials who graduated with just a high school diploma now earn 62% less than what a typical college graduate earns. 

And of course, the benefits of a college degree extend beyond the impact of income; the APLU explains that the jobless rate–even at peak unemployment levels–is more than doubled for people with high school diplomas as opposed to Bachelor’s degrees holders. People with Bachelor’s degrees are also 47% times more likely to have health insurance, which carries obvious implications for preventive and emergent health care for all their family members, even extending life expectancy by 7 years. And lastly, in sheer numbers, let’s look at lifetime earning potentials: 1.3 million for a high school diploma holder vs. 2.67 million for someone with an advanced degree. 

Clearly, expanding educational access to students is important, and as these stories exemplify, resources and support to get them there are crucial. Here are some resources that may help students bridge that gap to become a first-generation student: 

  • TRIO Support Services: These are federal programs designed to support students with disadvantaged backgrounds. 
  • FAFSA: The FAFSA is vital for all college students in order to receive financial aid, but it’s also especially important for students with high financial need. This website can help guide students and their support systems, to filling out the FAFSA. 
  • College Board: This organization helps students transition out of high school through SAT, AP, and BigFuture programs. Students can enroll in AP exams for college credit through the site, register for the SAT, and search for scholarships and career and major information. 
  • Center for First-Generation Student Success. As the name implies, this center is dedicated to empowering first-generation students to succeed. 
  • Universal College Application. This one-stop-shop helps students create a universal college application that can be used to apply to many different schools. 

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