A life of promise that she regained
She had a baby at 14. Her grit paid off in a degree, and a child who loves to read.
Rasheedah Phillips will graduate summa cum laude from Temple University on Thursday with a 3.8 grade-point average and an acceptance to law school.
Phillips, 21, did it in three years - while raising a daughter who is now 6.
Phillips proves you can beat the odds - that being a teenage mother isn't a guarantee of lost promise. But it meant juggling two part-time jobs, child care, diapers, and classes.
Among those cheering Phillips when she gets her degree will be her daughter, Iyonna, to whom she gave birth at 14. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy says more than two-thirds of girls who become pregnant before age 18 drop out of school; six out of 10 never get a diploma.
"I don't see what I do as amazing or different," said Phillips, who recently dyed her hair a two-toned pink lemonade and blond, her last fashion hurrah before entering the conservative legal world. "It's just what I do. It's what I have to do. "
But many have found her extraordinary. On Wednesday, she was a featured speaker at a "Real Deal" workshop for pregnant and parenting teens at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
"I think it's a huge responsibility of mine to come back and tell you it is very, very possible to go on and do what you dream of doing," Phillips told the roomful of teen mothers and fathers with infants and toddlers in tow.
Some of the young parents seemed daunted by their circumstances, exactly as Phillips was seven years ago. They gave her a rousing ovation.
"It is not the end because you have a child," she told them.
The Inquirer first profiled Phillips in June 2002 when she graduated from Lincoln High in Northeast Philadelphia with honors and a $4,800 scholarship, awarded to an outstanding senior who had overcome obstacles.
She was featured again in September 2003 as she learned to balance the rigors of college with child-rearing.
Since then, her story has been part of a book - It Couldn't Happen to Me: Three True Stories of Teenage Moms, and has assisted a Temple study on ways to keep teen fathers connected with their children. She regularly speaks to teen groups. And she has created a Web site describing her journey of self-awareness and how she embraced her "hairitage," allowing her hair to go "natural. "
And she has discovered the kindness of strangers.
After the articles appeared, more than 50 people wrote letters supporting Phillips, offering monetary aid and friendship. Some remain in touch, including Bruce Mabine, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Episcopal Hospital, which is part of Temple University. Mabine has sent Phillips SEPTA passes every month and introduced her to a close friend who is a lawyer.
"I'm just so happy for her, so happy to see she's on her way now," said Mabine, 54, of Lower Gwynedd. "She has more than her foot in the door. She has stepped inside the room. "
Phillips said the support - including monthly checks and encouragement from people she has never met - helped her survive.
"I was just so grateful, knowing that people cared," she said.
When she was younger, Phillips was a straight-A student and dreamed of being the first college graduate in her family. Then a difficult pregnancy kept her out of school. Her grades plummeted. Depressed after giving birth, she swallowed a bottle of pills in a failed suicide attempt.
Phillips decided she had to finish school for her daughter, who she hopes will break a family cycle. Phillips' mother also got pregnant at 14 with her, and her grandmother was the teenage mother of Phillips' mother.
Phillips lived with her mother during high school. She worked various jobs to help support Iyonna while going to school. Sometimes she was up until 4 a.m. doing homework.
Still, Phillips excelled, with support from Teen ELECT (Education Leading to Employment and Career Training), run by Communities in Schools, which offers counseling, parenting courses and support to teen parents, and which ran last week's workshop.
"Because of her energy, her commitment, her drive, she just was determined to do well. She was very open to all the support that came her way," program director Richard Floyd Jr. said.
As a criminal-justice major at Temple, she worked as a research assistant, data transcriber and office manager, and received a grant for child care. She also got help from her boyfriend and his father, who rented her an apartment in West Philadelphia.
She made it a priority to pay the $150-a-month tuition to St. Malachy School in North Philadelphia, which she chose for Iyonna, who has become an avid reader. One clue to Iyonna's success hangs on her bedroom wall: a sheet listing tips on "Raising a Reader and Writer. "
Phillips' school days began at 6:30 a.m. She delivered Iyonna to school by 8, took classes in the morning, worked afternoons, and spent much of her nights and weekends studying and tending to Iyonna.
Temple educators say Phillips never asked for special treatment; her intelligence, spirit and tenacity led to success.
"She's an exceptionally smart student, a terrific writer . . . an extremely open student and a terrific listener," said Julia Ericksen, a Temple sociology professor. "She is interested in new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. "
Phillips worries about how she will pay for Temple's law school. It will cost more than $60,000 for tuition and housing. While she received grants and child-care support as an undergraduate - she estimates she is $11,000 in debt now - she'll have to rely largely on loans for law school.
"We're looking for some help with funding," said Stephanie C. Hardy, Phillips' criminal-justice adviser. "This is a wonderful kid who needs as much assistance as possible to get where she wants to go. She has done spectacular things and beat the odds. "
Phillips said her sociology, psychology and African American studies classes, and her community-service work with teen parents, made her question her legal career choice. But she proceeded with law school, figuring she could use the degree to help people.
She dreams of opening a home for teen parents.
"Trying to motivate other people, working in the community, it's really fulfilling," she said.
Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some strangers were inspired to help Rasheedah Phillips after reading about her in The Inquirer.
Suzanne Stauffer, 41
Stay-at-home mother in Glen Mills, Delaware County
"I was so impressed by this young woman's focus and determination. I was also inspired by the way she was overcoming many obstacles in her life, did not make excuses, and was helping herself succeed. . . . I have been able to send her money and gift cards periodically. She has inspired me to be a better and stronger person. "
Elaine C. Reuther, 70
Retired medical-practice administrator from Havertown
"I was very impressed by her determination and her desire to keep and raise her baby. It sounds like she is doing a great job. Each year, usually at Christmas, I choose a cause that touches my heart and make a special donation. I call it my Christmas gift to myself. I decided to keep her as my Christmas gift to myself until she graduates from law school. "
Barbara Jennings, 56
Wealth-management specialist from Wenonah, Gloucester County
"I was so struck by her tenacity and strength - to forge ahead in the face of such odds against her. I originally approached her just to comment on how amazing I thought she was. I then asked her if she would be willing to allow me to 'prepay' for some legal expertise, that I didn't really know any attorneys and that when she made it through law school, she could answer any legal questions I may have - that I had already paid for! She thought this was a good idea, and so I began sending her a check each month."