When Rasheedah Phillips found herself pregnant at 14, she thought her goal of becoming the first college graduate in her family had all but disappeared.
Today, she graduates from Lincoln High School in Northeast Philadelphia with honors, a string of college scholarships, several accolades - and a 3-year-old daughter on the sidelines to cheer her on.
She recently received the $4,800 Richard H. de Lone Memorial Scholarship, awarded to an outstanding senior in the Philadelphia High School Academies program. The award recognizes a student who overcame obstacles and served his or her community and school, while enrolled in one of the 30 career academies, serving 7,000 district students.
Phillips doesn't hold up her experience as idyllic, but rather as a lesson learned in how to thrive in the face of misfortune and despite mistakes.
"You're going to encounter trials and tribulations no matter what you do," said Phillips, 18, an aspiring lawyer who will be a freshman at Temple University this fall.
"Use whatever experience you're going through as motivation. Use it as an impetus to push on. Use it to learn from."
That's just what she did.
A difficult pregnancy cost her six months out of school during the ninth grade. That was followed by a bout with depression, which also hospitalized her briefly. Her A grades quickly dissolved into C's, D's, even F's.
After becoming a parent, she had to work to help support her child. Sometimes she didn't get home until 1 a.m. and then stayed up as late as 4 a.m. doing homework. She had to be up by 6:30 a.m. to get her daughter, Iyonna, ready for day care and herself off to school.
Such difficulties become too much for many teens. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, more than two-thirds of girls who become pregnant before age 18 fail to finish high school, although some later obtain general equivalency diplomas.
But Phillips, by her junior year, returned to straight A's.
"Rasheedah could have gone either way," said Lincoln principal David Kipphut. "She has developed a real strong character and sense of self-worth. She doesn't use her experience as an excuse or a crutch. "
Phillips credits the Teen ELECT (Education Leading to Employment and Career Training) program with helping her to cope. The program, run by the nonprofit Communities in Schools, operates in each of the 22 neighborhood high schools, offering Saturday and summer academic programs, counseling, parenting courses and other support to teen mothers and fathers. It graduates 300 to 400 teen parents a year, said Treena Reid, executive vice president of Communities in Schools of Philadelphia.
Phillips has counseled other teen parents along the way.
"She makes you want to do more than what you have to," said Stephene Cain, who turns 18 and also graduates today.
Phillips also credits her mom, Bernadette Richardson, 33, with helping her to succeed. She drives Iyonna to day care in the morning and watches her in the evening after she gets home from her job as a youth counselor in a residential program for male juvenile delinquents.
Richardson said she understood her daughter's dilemma. She had been a teen mother herself; she, too, was just 14 when she gave birth to Phillips.
To have such a hard lesson repeated in the same family was a major blow. "I was the first person in the family that was supposed to go to college," Phillips said. "Everyone was counting on me to change the pattern of the family. "
Phillips said she never considered abortion, and her mother opposed adoption.
She said she got no support from Iyonna's father, also a teen, but has had a boyfriend since that time who has helped.
Despite her parental duties, Phillips also has participated in many activities. She wrote articles for the school newspaper, worked for the yearbook committee, and participated on the mock-trial team. She also mentors an 11-year-old in Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Philadelphia.
In addition to the academies' award, Phillips is to receive two honors at graduation: most distinguished writer in the senior class, and outstanding debater.
She works 18 hours a week at the Lafayette Redeemer nursing home, an improvement from her previous job at a video store, which kept her out much later in the evening.
As a student in Lincoln's law academy, she nurtured her interest in the legal field, first aspiring to be a police officer, then an FBI agent, and now a lawyer.
At Temple, she plans to major in criminal justice. She'll take her daughter with her. Temple has offered her apartment housing for families.
With scholarships totaling $9,000, she said, she won't have to get a full-time job during the academic year. But just how she'll juggle class, child care and other obligations on a college campus, she's unsure.
"It's a challenge," she said, "but I'm up for it. "