Rickeya Gill-Kellum was born with the odds stacked against her like a skyscraper.
Birthed to who she described as a crack-addicted mother and a father who ran out on her, Gill-Kellum, the fifth of six children, did what few expected her to do: she recently graduated from with honors and got accepted to a prestigious private university.
"I wanted something different," Gill-Kellum said. "I don’t want to talk down about my brothers and sisters, but they’re not in college. I have a little sister. I don't want her to think that that’s the only way of living, in an unhealthy environment. By me going to college, she’ll see that there’s something more."
Her unbending determination, focus and strength are making the fresh-faced 18-year-old’s dreams of a better life for her and her family become a reality, but she isn’t quite there yet.
While she’s won three local scholarships, she’s still $18,000 short of the annual $42,000 cost of attending Howard University, an elite historic black college in Washington D.C. that she’s dreamed of attending since she was a child. She plans to study law, a field of study the school is known for.
With classes starting soon, the clock is ticking. Gill-Kellum began a campaign to help raise money for her college tuition and has started distributing a letter sharing her story.
“I have seen and heard things that kids my age should never experience. I’ve been verbally and emotionally abused. I’ve witnessed drug abuse, drug transactions, violence and unimaginable chaos,” she writes in her letter. “However, all these challenges have made me stronger, caused me to work harder and be more determined to succeed. I refuse to relinquish my future by living the reckless lifestyle I’ve witnessed all my life. I know better, therefore I will be better. Failure is not an option.”
It’s a story she’s shied away from sharing in the past, but the desire to attend Howard in the fall erased all apprehension.
“Almost all my friends don’t know this about me,” she said. “I don’t like to share it because I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, but now I look at it as a good thing. There are probably more kids in the same situation as me and they feel like they can only go down. I hope that they can look to me as a positive example.”
It’s that positive energy that left an indelible impression of Cathy Staib, Gill-Kellum’s 11th grade pre-calculus teacher.
“She is an amazing person,” Staib said. “She’s been through a lot in life. She’s kept her grades up. In spite of everything she’s been through, she still comes in to class with a smile on her face.”
“In general I’m just a happy person,” Gill-Kellum said. “I don’t like to feel down. I never had anyone tell me you had to do your work. I just did it. Why not? Why shouldn’t I come into class with a smile on my face?”
Though she’s had a rough childhood, Gill-Kellum acknowledges that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the love and support of relatives. She said her grandmother raised her and her siblings after social workers took them away from their mother. But even then it was a struggle, Gill-Kellum said. Some of her older siblings have slipped through the cracks and have fallen into the cycle of drug addiction, she said.
She said she was fortunate to have lived with her aunt during her senior year who pushed her to fill out college applications and financial aide forms.
With that push she’s now halfway to living her dream of studying at Howard in the nation’s capitol. If she can’t make it there this fall, she’d be crushed, but said she was also accepted to Sonoma State University, which she will attend if she can’t raise enough money to get to Howard.
“I can’t just quit because one school won’t let me go there,” she said.
To help Rickeya Gill-Kellum live her college dream, community members can donate funds directly to Howard University on her behalf.
Checks can be sent to:
Office of Student Financial Services
Washington, DC 20059
Please write on check: Rickeya Gill-Kellum Student ID# @02684221