African American woman goes from homeless to Ivy League

Chelesa Fearce ate one meal a day and slept in her mother’s car. Her determination and hard work pulled her out of poverty.

Looking out into the darkness beyond the windshield of her mother’s car where Chelesa Fearce and her mother were spending the night, her dreams of Yale Medical School seemed impossible.

Fearce and her mother moved around Atlanta a lot. Sometimes shelter was an extended-stay hotel. More often, it was her mother’s car. She learned to survive on one meal a day. She stayed focused. She refused to let homelessness delay her ambitions.

Her persistence and hard work slowly paid off. She graduated high school as valedictorian with a 4.5 grade point average. Spelman College awarded her a full scholarship. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors with a degree in biochemistry in 2017.

From there she worked for two years at the National Institutes for Health, researching drugs for neurological and psychiatric disorders. Now she’s a first-year medical student at Yale Medical School, while also enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the same time—on another scholarship. She wants to be a child psychologist.

Those desperate nights that could have broken her are now the stuff of rear-view mirrors.

“I just tried my best to focus on the future and what I had to do,” Fearce told Zenger News. “I always told myself that the future would be brighter than this. I also truly believe that education is the most suitable and attainable way for me to get out of a life of poverty.”

On the really difficult days, Fearce said, her faith gave her hope. “I would just open my Bible to any page and for the most part, whatever page I landed on usually corresponded to what I was feeling,” she said. “Reading the Bible helped keep me sane and focused. It helped me understand that because of the temporary battles I was facing, I would be a lot stronger in the future.”

Fearce’s remarkable trek doesn’t surprise her mother, Reenita Shepherd. She praised her daughter’s fierce determination and hopeful outlook.

Chelesa Fearce is pictured with her mother Reenita Shepherd in an undated photo (Courtesy of Chelesa Fearce and Reenita Shepherd)

“Chelesa has always been a loving and studious child,” Shepherd said. “She never gave me any problems growing up and always did what I asked her to do.”

Shepherd gave her a strong example to follow. She grew up in foster care in Mississippi, bouncing around to 17 different homes. Sometimes between placements she voluntarily slept in detention centers or jails for her own safety. Her cancer diagnosis was her low point.

Now Ms. Shepherd is the founding CEO of Crusade to Nurture Children’s Success, an Atlanta organization that supports foster children. Shepherd has four biological children; Fearce is one of her three adopted kids.

“I couldn’t afford many things her friends had,” Shepherd said, “but [Chelesa] was humble and never held anything against me because we were poor.”

Fearce said she drew strength from how her mother handled her struggles.

“l learned the value of education from my mother,” she said. “I learned how to love from my mother. I learned the value of hard work. I learned how to persevere. But most importantly, I think I learned how to be a black woman in America. I learned that I have something to say and that I should never compromise on my beliefs and always stand up for what I believe in.”

Fearce said she talks “every day” with her older sister Chelsea Shelton, another honors college graduate. “She was a great role model to me. Watching her work multiple jobs and still excel gave me the motivation to make her proud. I hope that I inspire my younger siblings in the same way.”

She said her experience at Spelman “shaped my life in so many ways. It gave me my best friends and some of the best memories of my life. Spelman had black men and women as professors, something of which I truly appreciate, as I don’t see that here at Yale at all.”

Attending a famed historically black college was “truly was the best decision I ever made,” said Fearce.

Yale Medical School is challenging in new ways. “It is way more than I had ever expected,” she said. “There is an endless amount of information to know.”

Fearce’s journey can be an example for others. “People can learn [from my life] that whatever they are going through is only temporary, in most cases,” she told Zenger. “I want people to learn that despite what they are going through, they can reach their ultimate goals and that whatever they are experiencing in the moment will only make them stronger.

“I understand my privilege,” she said. “Though I grew up poor, I grew up poor in America, and I am afforded so many opportunities to excel.”

“I want people to know that I am always and will forever be on the side of the marginalized and I will do my best as a future physician and just as a person to treat everyone I meet with dignity and respect and try to understand their life experiences.”