Downsides Of The “Homeless Valedictorian” Story

Education reporters — journalists in general — rarely have time to stop and think about the impact of their work on the people they write about. Teachers, parents, and students don’t always realize the impact participating in a new story can have on their lives, either.  

So it’s particularly interesting to listen to this episode of WNYC’s Death, Sex, and Money podcast, in which a DC public school graduate who won a scholarship to Georgetown despite having spent some time homeless, talks about the experience (Stop Calling Me ‘The Homeless Valedictorian’).

A year and a half ago, Rashema Melson’s uplifting story was covered by NPR. The Washington Post wrote about her first year at college here. The college paper wrote about her, too. The PBS NewsHour featured her as well. I didn’t notice it at the time, but there was a lot of coverage. 

Now a sophomore, Melson’s complaint is not so much that the stories about her were inaccurate or that there was anything malicious about the coverage but that they boiled her story down to simplistic, two-word caricature of a person.

In fact, the” homeless valedictorian” story has become something of a media meme in recent years. Here’s a NBC News story about a different student, also written about by Huffington Post. Here’s another one from MSNBC. I’m sure there have been others. 

There’s a lesson here for newsrooms as well as journalists and story subjects, too, which is that stories like these may be difficult to resist given their unexpectedness and uplifting affect but still may not necessarily tell a helpful or representative story for the public. Child poverty remains an enormously widespread problem in America. Being a homeless student is no easy feat. Too few end up graduating from high school and going to college, much less ending up at the top of their classes. 

At very least, it would be ideal if journalists who cover these stories make clear to readers that they’re the exception rather than the rule — something to be celebrated but not used to take the edge off an uncomfortable reality. 

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.