Memphian Shaneka "Duke" Graham has overcome the formidable odds stacked against her to graduate from Lane College with her bachelor's degree in business in just three years instead of the standard four. On Sunday, June 23, Graham, who was salutatorian of Northside High School's Class of 2010, will receive her degree in the gymnasium of her college in Jackson, Tennessee.
It has been a long road for the young mother, who was raised in Memphis' Dixie Homes public housing project, where she shared a two-bedroom apartment with her seven siblings and their disabled parents. "Where I come from has always been my stepping stone to do better in life," Graham said. "The circumstances back then have made me value the way I live today."
Graham's roadmap out of poverty included consistent encouragement from her parents, as well as guidance and mentoring from the Memphis-based RISE Foundation, a nonprofit that empowers low-income Memphians to transform their financial wellbeing.
Graham participated in RISE's Goal Card Program, which gives students in grades 5-12 the knowledge and tools to achieve their academic and life goals. Students are rewarded with incentives based on grades, conduct and attendance, earning and redeeming points for prizes, such as games, school supplies and small electronics. Program participants during the 2011-2012 school year saw a 30 percent overall improvement in their grade point averages.
Although Graham is not the first Goal Card Program participant to attend college, she is the first who, throughout her college experience, continued to forward news about her grades and progress to the RISE Foundation. RISE president and CEO, Linda Williams says Graham is "a perfect example of how Goal Card nurtures and creates positive habits for young people that continue long after they leave our program. Goal Card changes the attitudes of young people from 'I could never achieve success' to 'Yes, I can and I will be successful.' We've used Shaneka to connect with other Goal Card students on the Lane College Campus and we've had her return and share her experience with students who are still in the program."
Graham now plans to enroll in graduate school at Henderson, Tennessee's Freed-Hardeman University in January of 2014. Her other goals include becoming a Certified Public Accountant and eventually launching her own business. "Sometimes dreams can easily be deterred and they sometimes seem too hard to accomplish," Shaneka said. "But in life, I have learned nothing comes easy. So in order to make things a reality, one must stay focused and work hard. I do not want to just work for somebody— I want to build something and become my own boss. Therefore, I set becoming an entrepreneur as a goal to keep striving for."
Shaneka is tremendously grateful to the RISE Foundation for giving her the tools to accomplish her educational and financial goals, and she plans to pay it forward in the future by mentoring high school-age girls.