Georgetown University’s Class of 2019 graduates this week, having won prestigious scholarships, pursued academic research, studied abroad, and engaged in acts of service. Students in Georgetown’s senior class hail from 48 states, Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; Guam; and 68 foreign countries. The university’s campus in Doha, Qatar, is celebrating its eleventh commencement with 60 graduating students, and the School of Continuing Studies in Washington, D.C., graduated 905 students.
Several members of the Class of 2019 have made headlines recently, having overcome extreme circumstances to earn their Georgetown degree. Here are a few of their stories, and we invite you to read more about the many achievements of Georgetown’s graduating students.
‘Getting to the finish line in one of the races of my life’
This week’s commencement marks another major milestone on the journey of first-generation, undergraduate student Rashema Melson (C’19), who grew up in southeast Washington, D.C., and experienced homelessness for five years before coming to Georgetown. Moving between hotels, houses, couches, and ultimately, a homeless shelter, “I knew that education was the only way out,” Melson told NBC Washington.
While homeless, Melson experienced a number of traumas but persisted—and graduated as valedictorian from Anacostia High School with a full scholarship to Georgetown, WTOP reports. “I started to give up,” she said in her high school commencement speech, “but then God gave me a sign that he wasn’t putting me through this to punish me, but to show others how to be resilient and persistent in the goals of life.”
While at Georgetown, Melson majored in justice and peace studies, and participated in the Georgetown Scholars Program and the Community Scholars Program. After graduation, she plans to take a year to serve underresourced communities in Washington, D.C. before pursuing a law degree. “This is just me getting to the finish line in one of the races of my life,” she says. “I know there’s many more to come.”
‘My background and experiences bring an added and crucial voice’
Also graduating this week is Kalif Robinson (G’19), whose path as a first-generation college student was documented in the 2018 film Unlikely. The film—about barriers facing underrepresented students, and how universities and advocates are pushing for equitable access to higher education and designing models that support student success—will be released to the public in fall 2019.
Robinson—now headed to the foreign service—completed his undergraduate degree at Georgia State, and Unlikely followed his return to school after dropping out. At times, Robinson had to work three jobs to stay afloat. For his graduate program, Robinson chose Georgetown’s Master of Science in Foreign Service graduate program, seeking to be a diplomat. “MSFS will equip me with the skills needed to be a change agent in the realms of foreign policy and diplomacy,” he says.
At Georgetown, Robinson initially felt out of place. “My nontraditional background as a first-generation student, mixed with my race, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics, made Georgetown extremely foreign to me,” he says. But his relationships with friends and mentors helped him feel valued. “I believe my background and experiences bring an added and crucial voice to contemporary foreign policy and international affairs discussions and debates,” he says.
‘I have had no greater partner than Georgetown’
Helping to celebrate these new graduates is this year’s senior convocation speaker Brian Ferguson (C’18), once wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for more than a decade. He will speak on his experiences as an incarcerated individual, his time at Georgetown, and his future as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford.
Although his undergraduate career at the University of West Virginia was interrupted by the wrongful conviction, after exoneration, Ferguson earned his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown while also working full-time as the director of the Washington, D.C., Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. He was heavily involved in the Pivot Program, a one-year transition and re-entry program that prepares returning citizens for employment and entrepreneurship. The program is a collaboration among the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, Georgetown College, and the McDonough School of Business, with support from the DC Department of Employment Services and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency.
While at Georgetown, Ferguson created Start Line, a nonprofit venture and app that allows formerly incarcerated individuals to identify, locate, and rate critical housing, employment and other social service resources. “Creating new and innovative programs and opportunities for previously incarcerated people is something that I consider a distinct honor to be able to do for a living,” Ferguson says, adding “those who have the least and are otherwise deemed as without value are often the most in need of assistance.”
Professor Marc Howard, who was a mentor to and collaborator with Ferguson as director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, says “Brian Ferguson embodies everything that Georgetown is and aspires to be. He has dedicated his life to pursuing knowledge, challenging injustice, and helping others. I’m thrilled to see him share his remarkable and inspiring story with the Georgetown community at Senior Convocation.”
“I have worked closely with many agencies, corporations and institutions on these issues, but I have had no greater partner than Georgetown,” Ferguson says. “From the top down, Georgetown’s investment into the city and into creating so many opportunities for returning citizens has made me even more honored to be an alumnus.”