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Long struggle ends today as single mother gets law degree

Rasheedah Phillips arrived for her first year of law school with three lip piercings, tattoos, clothes from her favorite thrift store, and turquoise hair accented with a splash of purple shaved in the shape of a star.

Rasheedah Phillips became a mother as a teenager, and raised her daughter, Iyonna, while going to school and working several jobs. Rasheedah is graduating from law school soon at Temple.  (Charles Fox / Inquirer)
Rasheedah Phillips became a mother as a teenager, and raised her daughter, Iyonna, while going to school and working several jobs. Rasheedah is graduating from law school soon at Temple. (Charles Fox / Inquirer)Read more

Rasheedah Phillips arrived for her first year of law school with three lip piercings, tattoos, clothes from her favorite thrift store, and turquoise hair accented with a splash of purple shaved in the shape of a star.

She was ready to shoot for her dream - a law degree from Temple University.

But she wasn't compromising her creativity, even though it set her apart from her classmates, two-thirds white and many from more privileged backgrounds.

A single mother at 14, Phillips was used to overcoming adversity. She graduated from Lincoln High School in Philadelphia with accolades, finished her Temple undergraduate degree in three years, and today, she completes the final leg of her long-sought goal - she graduates from Temple's Beasley School of Law.

Her story, chronicled by The Inquirer during the last six years, has turned the 24-year-old into a model for how a determined, young single mother can achieve her goals. She has spoken to about 60 groups of teen parents and social workers, explaining how she has juggled intensive studies, part-time jobs, and the mothering of her daughter, Iyonna, 9, now a third grader at St. Malachy School in North Philadelphia.

To underscore how Iyonna has shared in her mother's struggle, the little girl will walk across the stage with Phillips as she gets her degree.

Though Phillips says she found the law school experience uncomfortably conforming, grueling, and downright miserable - and spent many nights crying - she stayed on course. She said she did so for Iyonna, for all those who have helped her succeed, and for those she hopes to help as she enters a career in public-interest law.

"I've learned how strong I am. I've learned the value of sticking to something, regardless of how challenging and miserable. I've learned the value of seeing something through," she said one recent afternoon in the first-floor lounge of the law school.

Her tale is featured prominently in parenting teen programs throughout the Philadelphia School District. Phillips was part of the Teen ELECT (Education Leading to Employment and Career Training) program when she was at Lincoln, and she has become the program's most visible and successful graduate.

Among the lives she influenced is that of Glenicesha Langley, 17, a high school senior with a 3-year-old daughter. Langley met Phillips at a teen group run by the Children's Aid Society of Pennsylvania and later through Teen ELECT at Murrell Dobbins High School.

Langley has been accepted to Drexel University, where she will major in information technology. Phillips helped Langley with an essay and a financial-aid application for college. She also gave calendars to Langley and other teen mothers to teach them how to manage their time.

"She motivated me to want to stay in school," said Langley, who dreams of opening her own restaurant. "I feel as if I can still become something in life."

Even 52-year-old Roslyn Brinkley, a social worker who co-ran the teen group with Phillips at the Children's Aid Society, has been moved.

"Seeing her complete her law degree has encouraged me to go back to school for my master's degree," said Brinkley, who also was a single mother.

Bernadette Page, who gave birth to Phillips at 14, was inspired, too, and will watch her daughter graduate today: "She's my hero."

Phillips' odyssey began in ninth grade when she became pregnant. She was out of school for six months, and after giving birth, she plunged into depression. Her grades plummeted.

But with the help of the teen program and her mother, Phillips rebuilt her life. She worked part-time jobs to support her daughter and did her schoolwork.

Phillips graduated in 2002 with a $4,500 scholarship, awarded to an outstanding senior participating in career academies. Hers was in law.

She had defied the statistics: A study of Philadelphia School District's Class of 2000 found that 68 percent of 1,262 young women who gave birth within four years of starting high school dropped out.

Phillips went off to Temple with her daughter, and for at least part of the time, she was the only undergraduate student living in campus housing with a child. They shared a small, sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment, with her daughter in the bedroom and Phillips on a futon in the living room/kitchen. A male friend and her mother helped her care for her daughter, along with Iyonna's paternal grandmother. Her father is not in her life.

In May 2005, she graduated summa cum laude with a criminal-justice degree, earning a 3.8 grade-point average.

Phillips' reaching that milestone inspired Inquirer readers, many of whom sent donations and encouragement. Her story was even included in a book: It Couldn't Happen to Me: Three True Stories of Teenage Moms.

One donor, who has asked to remain anonymous, created a scholarship that was awarded to Phillips and covered her law school tuition - a $45,660 tab for three years. (Phillips estimates she has $65,000 in debt from her undergraduate education and loans to support herself and daughter while in law school.) Another donor helps with Iyonna's tuition at St. Malachy.

Phillips plunged into the world of case studies, torts and persuasive argument - a world that proved to be much different from her undergrad experience at Temple.

Phillips, who writes fiction and follows astrology, found that she had to restrain her creativity and learn to write in a uniform fashion.

Her surroundings were also different. For one, it was a much whiter student body. Only 7 percent of Temple law students are black, compared with 17.3 percent of undergraduates. Being a single parent from a low-income household further set her apart.

"I really felt like I didn't fit in," she said. "A lot of times, I felt like I was being indoctrinated."

JoAnne A. Epps, incoming dean of Temple's law school, who is also African American, said she felt much the same at Yale University law school in the 1970s. It wasn't just the lack of diversity, but also the large number of classmates who came from professional parents, whose social circles included lawyers, judges, and the powerful elite.

"I give her credit for recognizing the setting and thriving despite the differences," said Epps, who taught Phillips in two classes, one in criminal procedure and the other in evidence. "I enjoyed having her and her very scrappy, up-from-the-bootstraps practical and yet thoughtful approach to legal issues."

Phillips said she struggled the most with having to read pages and pages of cases every night and being called to account for it in class.

"You were scared into doing the reading," she said.

Temple faculty and staff were supportive and caring, she said, but nothing could take the edge off the work. Grades are based on a final exam. Phillips finished with a C average, with her best semester this spring. She got an A-minus and the rest B's.

Other struggles persisted, such as finding a safe, affordable place to live. She has moved once a year, fleeing neighborhoods that turned too violent and drug-infested. She's now renting a house on a quiet street in Grays Ferry.

"On my budget, there aren't too many options," she said.

Phillips still must pass the bar exam in July.

After that, there is a $46,000 job waiting for her at Community Legal Services. Because the work is public interest, she will get some credit toward her loan debt.

She plans to continue her interests in theater, art and creative writing and may one day veer into another career.

Phillips, who wore a "Nerd" pin and a multicolored necklace from the Dollar Store, has cut back on the piercings and softened her hair color - it's dark blond with a black center strip. "I feel like I have to tone it down," she said. "If I were a client, I probably wouldn't want my lawyer to have a mohawk."

She's getting ready to augment her wardrobe with suits and high heels.

But she has no plans to get rid of her collection of empty eyeglass frames that she wears for style. She won't don them in court, of course.

At Community Legal Services, she will work in the family advocacy unit, helping parents in the child-welfare system.

"Her greatest strength is her ability to identify with our clients, given her own experience in the world," said Sarah Katz, supervising attorney in the unit, where Phillips has worked part time.

Phillips said she has no interest in corporate law or big-dollar legal work.

In a speech last fall at a diversity summit held by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Phillips explained her affinity for public interest.

"There may be infinite possibilities for this degree, but for me, in my proverbial heart, mind, body and soul, there quite simply is no choice," she told the audience. ". . . It is my humanity, my human experiences, and my interconnectedness to other humans whom I most identify with that forces me to attempt to improve our lot."

Someone else recognized that about her, too.

Phillips will receive the Henry Kent Anderson Human Services Award at today's law school graduation, given to a student whose work has demonstrated "a concern for the victims of society's inequities."

For earlier stories, audio and photos, go to EndText