UPDATE: Spelling Champ's Victory

Monday, May 5, 2008

Among the roughly 2,000 students who will graduate from Howard University on Saturday, one -- Ashley White -- has come a long, long way. From homelessness and teenage motherhood, she will graduate magna cum laude with a degree in television production and plans for graduate school.

"I did it," White said. "I completed this huge goal."

White was the subject of a Washington Post article in 2004 that drew a big response from readers. A District spelling bee champ, she had been featured in a documentary, "Spellbound," about the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. In the movie, the ambitious middle-schooler with a photographic memory had dreams of being an obstetrician.

But, as the Post story recounted, White fell far and hard by the time the movie was released, in 2002. At age 18, she became a mother. And after bouncing among temporary homes, she landed in a homeless shelter.

Despite the hardships, the young woman's dreams were unsquelched. Determined to get a college education, she was helped through Howard University by Washington Post readers, who offered her jobs, furniture and mentoring and contributed thousands of dollars to her education.

To make ends meet, she worked part-time jobs, including as a clerk in a clothing store, as a substitute teacher at her daughter's child-care center and as administrative assistant at a real estate firm.

For the past two years, she has worked part time at Florence Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, a nonprofit group that works with teens and teen parents in the District and Montgomery County. As she recounts on her Web site, http://www.ashleytwhite.org, she plans to work there full time for about a year while she applies to graduate school for a master's degree in social work.

Her daughter, Dashayla, 4, will enter kindergarten in the fall.

White bubbles over with future plans. "Now that I'm here, I'm going to get my master's degree, and once I get my master's degree, it'll be, 'I'm going to get my PhD,' " she said.

After graduate school, White plans to work full time with children and see whether she can help prevent them from going through the difficulties she has faced. "It's important for me to help those people who've been where I've been," she said.

-- Jacqueline L. Salmon

© 2008 The Washington Post Company