The inspiring story of how a single mother made it to Harvard
For the United States, Lalita Booth is the 'homeless to Harvard' wonder. The face of hope, a much refined version of the staid rags-to-riches story -- only this time the riches is not in dollars but in educational degrees.
For us here, she makes sense because till a few years ago, she was a teenage-mother, living off scraps and out of a car. Today, she is pursuing a degree in Business Administration and Public Policy at the Harvard University. Besides, she is also the author of the book Financial Education for Lower-Income Audiences: A guide to Programme Design, Implementation and Evaluation which is found in the libraries of various US colleges and b-schools.
Her story is stirring not because she is just a cliche -- having fought all odds and emerged supreme -- but because she decided to take the more thorny route to recovery -- education.
At 17 and barely school-educated, with a baby in hand, no place to call home and no family to use as crutch, Lalita decided that the best way to beat life's miseries was to educate herself.
"I wanted my son to be proud of me and I thought no better way than to study and get myself some real degrees. Harvard was just an illusion when I stayed on the streets and went to sleep hungry. Today, I am right there," said Lalita Booth while speaking from the US.
Lalita's story makes good sense because she is also probably one of the few who has been awarded some 20 scholarships in the last five years -- worth a whopping half a million US dollars.
Image: Lalita Booth (right) with her son
Her only possession was her wailing child
That her life was a mess, Lalita realised when young in Ashville N.C, her hometown.
The only child of her parents, the memories most vivid in her mind are of her parents fighting and being thrown out of homes.
With no inspiration to look up to, Lalita went the 'wild way.'
On turning 16, she legally separated from her parents. "I did that because I thought that would be the end of all my problems. I wanted to live my life my way --there was nothing much with my parents anyway," she said.
But actually, life turned only shoddier. At 17, she got married and at 18, became a mother. And her husband divorced her soon after and left to join the army.
Lalita had just nowhere to go -- her only possession was her wailing child. For a while, she just managed to live -- on scraps and whatever else she could manage. Some months later, Lalita fell in love with another man, and the three moved to Colorado. But life was still exacting and the three had to live on government assistance.
"Both of us did some low-wage jobs to keep it going but it was really tough," recalls Lalita.
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh
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'I was scared of touching his diaper'
And it was an episode one evening, during that phase of her life, that changed everything for Lalita.
"My son was two and I was scared of touching his diaper fearing it would be wet since I had no money for diapers. Then he asked for food and there was nothing at home. I made him sleep hungry. While he slept, I remained wide awake. I felt horrible that I brought into this world a son who I could not even feed. I had to get my life back for my son."
That evening changed Lalita's standpoint forever. Instead of simply crying over how 'cruel life was' Lalita decided to do something about it.
"I sent my son to live with my boyfriend's parents in North Carolina and within minutes of dropping him there I picked up the phone book and searched for financial planners," said Lalita.
"Whoever I called, I told them that I had no money and I needed free advice on how to earn some money to be able to get my son back and get-off government assistance. One financial planner actually helped me out. Since we were still under government assistance, I managed to keep some money aside and enrolled in a course to become a tax agent. The entrance exam is supposed to be real tough but I got through," Lalita informed.
'I took a job in the grocery store in the day and went to college later'
Within months, she got herself a job which gave her $32,000 per annum with the US Treasury Department. Lalita got her son back but around the same time she and her boyfriend also separated. She was back to being alone with her son, only this time, she had a little bit of money and a longing to 'educate' herself.
"I moved to Florida and enrolled in Trinity Community College since it was the cheapest college. I took a job in the grocery store in the day and went to college later. My son's education was also an emerging need then and since he is autistic I knew I had to work double hard," says Lalita.
Studying through the nights, Lalita managed a straight A grade in all the subjects and bagged the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship worth $30,000. This money helped Lalita enrol at the University of Central Florida (UCF).
There too, Lalita performed extraordinarily during the four-years. Finally she graduated in 2009 and was the College of Business Administration's Top Honour Graduate with dual degrees in Finance and Accounting.
There, she was also awarded the Order of Pegasus (highest honour at UCF) and the UCF's Alumni Association's Distinguished Student Award and became UCF's first Truman Scholar.
'If poor people knew how to handle their money, they'd be better off than where they are'
Days had begun to look brighter for Lalita. She had reached her mid-20s -- and what the waves of education could do to a person, was staring back at her.
"My interest was in managing finances, having learnt the hard way and I always felt that if poor people knew how to handle their money, they would be better off than where they are," Lalita told..
During college, Lalita started a non-profit organisation called Lighthouse for Dreams. The organisation which is growing in numbers even today teaches financial literacy to high schools students. Lalita says it is important that students know the clout that money holds in the world.
Life had begun to settle for Lalita who by then had an irrepressible desire to keep studying. There was no way she was going to stop -- Harvard seemed like a logical next step but an almost impossible one.
She pursued and before she knew it, was strolling along the hallowed corridors of the graduate school in Harvard, pursuing a dual degree in Public Policy and Master of Business Administration.
'I can still remember lectures from a year ago as if they happened yesterday'
"The best ever. I can't tell you how good the case study method is. I can still remember lectures from a year ago as if they happened yesterday. Lecture-based teaching can be awfully boring. Case-studies bring life to everything. I look forward to lectures only because of case-studies," answers Lalita.
About extra-curricular activities, Lalita says: "Oh, there are plenty here but I don't take part in many. I have a son to go to at the end of the day. My class mates go abroad for internships but I don't because of my son."
Lalita is 30 today while her classmates are about 25-28. No one makes her feel old and they better not because what she has gained in the last decade by way of education and scholarships, none of her classmates have come anywhere close.
She enjoys every bit of classroom life, a privilege she missed while growing up.
Today, she has almost achieved what she set as a goal 12 years ago. Her son who is 12 happily announces to everyone that his mother is at Harvard. "He is truly proud of me and I feel fulfilled today,"Lalita said.
Image: Harvard University
Photographs: Creative Commons
'How to spend and use money is very important'
Forward, Lalita wants to write some more books for the helpless and poor besides continuing work with her NGO. She has become a bit of a celebrity already with newspapers and television channels keeping an account of her every new degree.
So what is the job that Lalita is looking forward to after graduation?
"I hope the Department of Treasury's Office of Financial Education create a special post for me. I would like to work there. Just earning money is not the end of everything, how to spend and use it is very important," the 30 year-old warns.
Till then Lalita, who is proud to have an Indian name (given by an Indian friend of her parents) will just continue to mount up her degrees. When asked about her success, Lalita always says: "In this world, you either have an excuse or a story. I preferred to have a story."