“Even though I graduated from LEAD, I can still go back there and get the same amount of love as if I’m there every day. I feel like that support system is never going away. And I know that’s forever.” - Naysha, 2019 LEAD valedictorian

Naysha is strikingly honest when you talk to her. Where some people would gloss over their blemishes, Naysha proudly owns her truth. Pregnant at 15. Held back two years. Homeless teen.

“I’ve been through a lot but I don’t regret anything that I’ve been through because it has made me the person that I am,” she said.

Today, the 2019 LEAD valedictorian juggles a full-time schedule at Rutgers University, while mothering her 2-year-old son, and preparing for her future. Wrapped in her scarlet Rutgers crewneck, Naysha seamlessly blends in with the thousands of fast walking students heading to their college classes. But in the LEAD community, she’s a shining example of what young people can do with an opportunity.

Naysha connected with LEAD Charter School in 2017 when she discovered the accelerated program would help her recover her credits and graduate in 2019. At the time, she was two years behind without a school home. “I knew I was too smart to be two years behind,” Naysha said, one day between classes, so when she heard about LEAD, she pursued it single-mindedly. Her only goal: get her diploma.

“Just give me my diploma,” she said. “That was the mindset that I had. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I know I need it.”

But she soon learned that the diploma wouldn’t mean anything if she didn’t know her “why” – that deep rooted goal that keeps students motivated to get to class on time, study and push through even when it seems impossible. Her three-month-old son was her obvious why, but LEAD staff begged her to go deeper.

“A lot of the LEAD administrators say all of the time, ‘It’s not about getting your diploma. We can give you a diploma right now. What will you do with it? What do you want to show your son? What are you trying to be for your son?” she said.

After weeks of reflection, she discovered that her “why” was a desire to “break the cycle” and be the type of person she wanted her son to be. Naysha’s “why” motivated her through the next two years at LEAD where she graduated at the top of her class in June, with her son on her hip and her diploma in her hand. But on that day, she already had her eyes set on a new goal.

“When I graduated on graduation day, I knew for a fact, that in the fall, I was going to some college and I was hoping it would be Rutgers,” Naysha said.

Today, when Naysha visits LEAD, she enters as an alum and a college student pursuing a career in social work. And though she’s not in class everyday, LEAD will always be home to her. After graduation, graduate services follow up with every alum for the next two years to help them with job placement, career advice and any other resources they need to be successful.

“Even though I graduated from LEAD, I can still go back there and get the same amount of love as if I’m there every day. I feel like that support system is never going away,” she said. “And I know that’s forever.”