Chelesa Fearce had a secret that her classmates didn't know.
A secret that could not define or defeat her.
A secret that she was ready to reveal on graduation day: Their valedictorian was homeless.
Today, six years later, her story of perseverance continues, from a teenager studying by the stove light at extended-stay motels to Spelman College graduate and medical researcher now starting Yale Medical School.
"Homelessness taught me how to work hard, always persevere and never let anything get in my way," Fearce told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently.
The 23-year-old made national news in 2013 with her story of triumph over adversity — finishing at the top of her class at Clayton County's Charles R. Drew High School with a 4.5-grade point average while homeless and living sometimes on one meal a day.
Her academic success landed her a full scholarship to Spelman, where she graduated in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry.
She has worked full-time for the past two years at the National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, Maryland, doing research on drugs for neurological and psychiatric disorders.
And this month, Fearce starts Yale Medical School with a full scholarship and stipend to cover living expenses.
She expects to be at the Ivy League school for eight years and to graduate with her doctorate and a medical degree.
Her longtime goal is a career in psychiatry, she told the AJC.
Fearce is still asked frequently about her years living in homeless shelters, the family car, and extended-stay motels while her single mom was dealing with joblessness and cancer.
"It really helped show my resilience when I applied for college and medical school," she said.
Her older sister, Chelsea Shelton, also continues to display the can-do spirit that shined in both women during high school.
Shelton was salutatorian at Atlanta's Carver High School, with a 3.7 GPA, at the same time Fearce was valedictorian at Drew. She had a full scholarship to the University of West Georgia and graduated with honors in 2016 with a degree in criminology.
She works full time at the state Department of Juvenile Justice as a corrections officer and lives on Atlanta's southside.
Shelton has contemplated going to law school. But for now, she said, she's taking some time to adjust to two very recent and happy changes in her life: She's a new mother and a first-time homebuyer at age 24.
Shelton credits her success to "keeping God first" and to sister Chelesa (pronounced Che-lisa), who she describes as "awesome" and "inspiring."
Their mother, Reenita Shepherd, has a busy life, as well. She's raising her youngest two children, one of whom attends a prestigious Atlanta private school on scholarship. She's also a caretaker to a former homeless shelter director in failing health and foster parent to four siblings.
"Everybody is good," Shepherd said. "Life is good."
Fearce's story is kept alive on the home front by the Clayton County school system.
In her name, the system annually awards scholarships to local homeless students with good academic records.
The scholarships of $250 to $1,000 come from donations collected in the county, which ranked first in the state in 2016-2017 in student homelessness with about 2,700 students.
Fearce appears at the scholarship presentations by video when she can't make it in person.
Hearing about her helps "the students know what is possible," said Jacqueline Evans, an administrative assistant with Clayton County's Students in Transition Office, which deals with the issue of student homelessness. "Sometimes, you have to see somebody else to know it can happen to you."
WHAT INSPIRES CHELESA FEARCE
Continuing to learn: "As a future physician, I will always be learning."
Favorite inspirational quote: Romans 8:18: "For the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us."
Advice to other students: "They should remember why they got involved in their preferred area of study; this will allow them to continue pressing on when it gets tough."
© 2019 Cox Media Group.