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Senior, once homeless, perseveres to be first in family to graduate

April 20, 2015

KOKOMO, Ind. — At the lowest point in Shanique Gilliam’s life, she lived in an Indianapolis homeless shelter, a victim of her mother’s poor choices.

Her grandmother stepped in, offering her a stable home in Kokomo and support she needed to change her life. After driving by the Indiana University Kokomo campus, Gilliam knew higher education was her ticket to success.

When she walks across the stage during May’s Commencement ceremony, she will be the first in her family to graduate college.

“My grandmother says I am breaking the cycle, the first in my family to earn a degree,” said Gilliam, 24, a health sciences major. “It’s a big deal not only for me, but for my family. It’s an amazing feeling that each day I wake up one day closer to graduation.”

Gilliam originally planned to study nursing, but decided on health sciences instead in order to advocate for patients and educate them on health care issues. Her goal is to be a health care administrator; working with patients to be sure they have a smooth experience in a health care facility.

Currently, she is an intern at St. Joseph Hospital in Kokomo, where she helps new mothers enroll in the patient portal, which allows them to access their medical records online.

As a student, one of her most meaningful experiences was donating breast tissue to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Tissue Bank in Indianapolis, with her civic engagement and breast cancer class. She learned there is a pressing need for donations of healthy tissue from minority women, and believed she needed to contribute.

Assistant Professor Jessica Henderson, who teaches that class, inspires Gilliam to keep going when times are tough.

“She taught me how to be proud of myself,” she said. “Jessica is a breast cancer survivor, and she doesn’t let anything stop her from accomplishing her goals. She set the example for me, to come back and finish what I started.”

Gilliam is thrilled to be close to the finish line, especially since she considered taking the spring semester off. She gave birth to her son, Shamir, during the second week of classes, but with encouragement from her grandmother and her eight-year-old daughter, she returned one week later.

Her daughter Shamiyah, a student in Kokomo’s Sycamore Elementary high ability program, is nearly as impatient as she is for graduation to arrive.

“I have to show her that she has to go to college and graduate, too, not matter what,” she said. “You can’t let anyone hold you back.

“I want to be able to take care of myself and my family, and being educated is how I can make that happen.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 04/20/2015