From homeless to Harvard: How a Newton teenager is beating the odds

NEWTON, Mass. — She captured a lot of eyes and hearts during a student-led protest for George Floyd in Newton last summer.

And now as the class speaker, she was the closest thing Newton South High School had to a valedictorian. She’s done with high school, she has her eyes set on studying pre-med at Harvard.

But when we first introduced you to Imani Fonfield, 18, she wasn’t walking across the stage with the top honor at her graduation, she was leading a die-in for George Floyd at the Newton Town Hall.

“We don’t need people to know the vocabulary, we don’t need to know the latest people who died, we need to know if you’re going to put yourself on the line, we need to know if you are going to sacrifice something. I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired,” she said during the protest.

“Last summer was full of passion, full of emotion and raw realizations about our society,” Fonfield said at her Thursday night graduation. “A lot of us have now taken our passion and our voices into the school building, we have looked at our leadership and representation in our teachers and staff. So a lot of anti-racist leadership, a lot of discussions around how our school can embrace civic engagement.”

If you ask her mom, this passion started from Day 1.

“Imani has thrived since she was born,” said her mom, Gladys Fonfield. “She was a preemie. It was her self determination then that took care of me and always has.”

Challenges in her upbringing have only intensified her drive.

“I didn’t have a home. Not long before I started kindergarten, my mom and I were homeless,” Fonfield said during her speech.

Generations of domestic violence took the life of her grandmother and forced her and her mother into homelessness. Now the Harvard-bound student is breaking the mold in so many areas.

“It was a very emotional experience,” she said about getting into Harvard. “It felt very liberating for me and my family. I am a first-generation college student.”

And as she said goodbye to high school, she decided to take someone with her.

“This is my sister Joi. I decorated my Kente cloth with her, she suddenly passed away from an asthma attack in seventh grade, so I am wearing her today so we can graduate together,” she said. “Joi, thank you for being my guardian angel.”

You would think Harvard was a difficult choice since she was also accepted to Yale, BU, Northeastern, UConn and UMass Amherst, but her older sister wanted to go to Harvard. Now Imani is going for the both of them and for her entire family.

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