Chelesa Fearce's mother experienced a health battle that led to a series of financial difficulties

It’s a big leap from homeless teen to Yale medical school student, but perseverance paid off for Chelesa Fearce of Clayton County, Georgia.

“Just keep your eyes on the prize,” Fearce, now 24, tells PEOPLE. “You can’t get stuck in the moment and worry about the right now."

"You always have to think about your future and what inspires you," she adds. "That’s helped me get through.”

Fearce was a fourth grader when her mom, early childhood education teacher Reenita Shephard, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. That began a financial spiral for the mother of four.

Chelesa Fearce
Chelesa Fearce
| Credit: Courtesy Chelesa Fearce

“People don’t realize it can happen to anybody,” Fearce says.

She and her family moved in and out of shelters, hotels and even the family car.

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chelsea fearce
Credit: Courtesy Chelsea fearce

Fearce was determined to be a good role model for her younger siblings. She found inspiration in her late grandmother, struggling with kidney failure and diabetes, who gave Fearce emotional support, and her chemistry teacher.

“In high school, it was the first time I had seen a black woman doing science,” Fearce says. “Before I would never had thought I could do science. I knew I was good at it, but at that moment I realized I could actually do it.”

In her junior and senior year, Fearce took both high school and college courses, missing out on the free meals she depended on so she could get to her college classes. She not only graduated as valedictorian of her 2013 class with a 4.5 grade average, but was also given a full-ride scholarship — including a meal plan — to Spelman College in Atlanta.

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After graduation, she worked full time for two years at the National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, Maryland, doing research on drugs for neurological and psychiatric disorders.

She entered Yale last fall and has set a course to earn both a PhD and medical degree to become a psychiatrist.

“Psychiatry is something that touches everybody,” Fearce says. “People will be traumatized [after the pandemic], especially those working on the front lines, so they are going to need help."

As for her siblings, older sister Chelsea Shelton, 25, earned a degree in criminology after receiving a full college scholarship and now works at the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

Younger siblings Nicholas, 12, and Cayleigh, 11, are currently living with their mom, who is in remission and working, in Atlanta.