Years spent homeless were no barrier to Yale medical student

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Chelesa Fearce knows how to make a home for herself.

That's true at Yale University, where she's a first-year medical student and a doctoral candidate in chemistry. It was true at Spelman College in Atlanta, surrounded by other intelligent, supportive African-American women.

And it was true when she and her family had to stay in a shelter, after losing their home because her mother, Reenita Shepherd, couldn't afford the medical bills for treatment of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which kept her out of work for years.

Fearce may have been homeless, but she's never been held back.

"I don't feel like it was hard," Fearce, 24, said. "You go through each day, you take everything day by day."

She didn't have a lot of friends and wasn't able to have sleepovers, but that was partly because she was more focused on her studies.

"My sister was very popular," she said, despite being homeless. "I also took college courses in high school, so I didn't hang around. . . . I just sort of stayed to myself, not with other students."

Fearce, her mother and her sister Chelsea, who's a year older than Fearce, lost their home when Fearce was in fourth grade. By the time Fearce went to Spelman and her mother was well enough to work and find a place to live, the family grew by two: Nicholas, now 11, and Cayleigh, 10.

After losing their apartment, "we stayed in shelters, and my mother did have a car, so sometimes we did stay in the car," Fearce said. Other times, they would stay in a hotel or with friends.

For the first two years, Fearce went to stay with her grandparents in Columbus, Miss., where she was born. Her grandfather's nickname for her is "Little Whip." Her grandparents gave her stability, giving her responsibilities such as washing the dishes and ironing. They have a small farm with fruits and vegetables like corn, spinach, figs and tomatoes, as well as two or three pigs.

Returning to her mother, Fearce met up with the realities of homelessness: "not knowing if you're going to have food to eat, a place to stay, just basic things you have to think about all the time." Reenita Shepherd could not be reached for comment but told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year that "Life is good."

She had no computer, "so it was hard sometimes to get work done," she said.

But while many classmates did not know she was homeless — her high school was on the other side of town — when she was named valedictorian, with a 4.5 grade point average, the homeless liaison at Charles R. Drew High School in Riverdale, Ga., suggested she go on the local news to talk about it.

She had applied to Spelman, a historically black women's college in Atlanta.

"Then the story came out and they said, 'OK, she has resilience,'" she said of the Spelman admissions officers. She didn't answer a phone call because she was practicing for her graduation speech the next day. It turned out to be Spelman, offering her a full scholarship.

It doesn't upset her that she's become well known because of having been homeless for eight years.

"Not at all, because I can't change my background or anything, and I'm the one who chose to reveal it," she said. She said the most positive memory of her time spent being homeless was "having my brother and sister and just wanting to be a good role model for them."

It was important to Fearce that people understand that not all homeless people are drug addicts or people who don't want to work. "I think people just stereotype homeless people all the time. There can be other situations that happen and we're also people. We're smart, have families and things just happen."

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 553,742 people experienced homelessness on a given night in 2018, and 180,413 of them — almost a third — were members of families. Almost 4,000 people were homeless in Connecticut that year. Many, like Fearce's family, were forced out of their homes by an inability to pay medical bills.

Through it all, Fearce kept up with her studies. During the summers she took part in an Atlanta program for disadvantaged youth, teaching children fire and gun safety and working in a doctor's office.

"I think I was always focused," she said. "My mom, before she got sick, was an Early Head Start teacher, so she taught us the importance of education at an early age."

She can't recall a moment when she decided to go to medical school, Fearce said, though her mother's illness was "a catalyst to my wanting to be a doctor."

A feeling of belonging

Spelman was a perfect place for Fearce, especially so since her mother had attended for a brief time. Located across from Morehouse College, which is all male and the alma mater of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee, Spelman brought in Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama as commencement speakers.

"It's all women and we all really support each other," Fearce said. "You learn about your history as African-American women. . . . It's a welcome environment. Everybody wants to see each other succeed. It's so nice to see so many driven black women in one place."

Finally, Fearce didn't stand out as different. "Having people I could relate to was the biggest part of my experience there," she said. "I would go back tomorrow if I could. . . . It felt like I belonged there."

While almost all of the students are African American, Spelman is diverse, Fearce said, with students from different regions, countries and socioeconomic statuses. One of her best friends was from Zimbabwe.

Fearce was able to enjoy college life: swimming, going to chapel, watching the dorm dance teams do their steps during the annual "stroll off." She graduated magna cum laude and was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa.

An 'extroverted introvert'

Coming to Yale — where she also received a full scholarship — has been different, but Fearce has found the university and New Haven to be more diverse than she anticipated. "I knew I wanted to go to school in the Northeast and this is a great place to do it," she said. Why the Northeast? "I'm not really a fan of the heat," she said.

While Northerners aren't as naturally friendly as people from the South, "If I look like I'm lost people will stop and help me," she said. "I'm an extroverted introvert. It's easy for me to talk to people." She said she hasn't encountered racist attitudes, wherever she's lived, but said if it were to happen, "I'm very vocal about my feeling so if someone were off-putting to me there might be some problems."

Fearce continues to be an overachiever, working on both her medical degree, which will take eight years before she reaches her goal of becoming a child psychiatrist, and a doctorate in chemistry.

"I obviously want to work with children who've had traumatic backgrounds," she said.

Her interest in chemistry began in high school and she spent two years studying pharmacology at the National Institutes of Health after graduating from Spelman, screening drugs that act on dopamine receptors, "the main target for antipsychotics currently," she said. While as a psychiatrist, she would be prescribing medications, she also wants to work on creating new medications.

But the workload hasn't stopped her from being involved outside her studies. She's been elected vice president of the Medical Student Council. First-year students, with the lightest workload, are normally elected officers of the council.

While her mother's health care costs caused her family's homelessness, Fearce was reluctant to discuss the presidential candidates' health care plans, but said, "I'm all about having a universal health care system. I think that's the way to go. I hope to treat people of all economic backgrounds. I don't want to turn anybody away because they can't afford to pay for it."

Online: https://bit.ly/2MZmeAJ

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Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com