11/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Against All Odds: How Honors Student Shantell Steve Impressed President Obama

African-American children can now look at the presidency as a somewhat attainable position, which has a lot to do with the fact that President Obama is Black. But it also has to do with him having a blue-collar, middle-class background. Neither the President nor the First Lady allowed their financial limitations to dictate their future endeavors. That's the message of President Obama's speech on education last week where the President announced he is holding American kids to task, asking that they do their best, work hard, and seize whatever opportunities come their way.

Shantell Steve is one of the students. She was mentioned in the President's speech as an example of someone who's doing it right. Shantell grew up in the foster care system in Chicago and has lived in at least five homes throughout her 18 years. Despite it all, she remained focused on school, never allowing her home situation to interrupt her education. As she completes her senior year at Julian High School, Shantell works with a number of community organizations, mentors younger kids, is applying to top colleges, and works at a local health care center. As the President said, Shantell and the other students "...chose to take responsibility for their lives, for their education, and set goals for themselves."

Shantell spoke to ESSENCE.com about what it's like having her name thrown into the national spotlight, her future plans in medicine and the advice she gives other kids who find themselves in similar circumstances.

ESSENCE.COM: What was it like growing up in Chicago?

SHANTELL STEVE: I didn't have the best childhood, but I wouldn't consider it to be the worst because I'm still living. I was placed in an environment filled with anger so great that most of the people in my life couldn't show me any love. I've never known my birth father, but I have met my birth mother. I've been in foster care all my life and each home that I've lived in has basically been harmful to me.

ESSENCE.COM: Now you live with one of your teachers?

STEVE: I was basically labeled as homeless. She took me in and I've been staying with her for a while now. It's been great because she's very supportive and helps me with so many things.

ESSENCE.COM: You're involved in a number of organizations at school including mentoring younger students and helping to keep them out of gangs. Why is it important for you to give back?

STEVE: I've been in AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) for three years now. It caught my eye because it was a college prep program. I'm also involved in a group called Social Justice and I really liked the way we help foster the school's interaction with the community. We've done service projects, started a mentoring program, and traveled to New Orleans to help rebuild. People should know that there are other students just like me at Julian [High School]. They just haven't been singled out as yet.

ESSENCE.COM: What's your favorite subject in school?

STEVE: I like science because you get to figure things out that you don't necessarily know or understand. I like doing science projects because it allows you to think outside the box.

ESSENCE.COM: What do you plan to do with what you're learning in science?

STEVE: I'd like to student cancer. I just find it to be a very strange disease and I'm very passionate about learning more. I've had a lot of people around me pass away from cancer. No one has discovered a cure or can even figure out where it comes from. It could be the environment or what we eat- it's just very interesting to me. The University of San Diego and the University of Wisconsin at Madison are my top college choices. I plan to study biology and then go on to medical school.

ESSENCE.COM: What was it like to hear President Obama say your name in his speech last week?

STEVE: It was amazing! I cried because I was like wow, President Obama is actually saying my name and recognizing me for doing something I didn't even realize I was doing myself. I assumed he found out about me through the community work that I do. I also work with Chicago Youth Initiating Change and have even met with the CEO of Chicago Public Schools a few times. When my teacher told me that he saw my name in the speech, that's when I started to get calls from the news stations.

ESSENCE.COM: Is all this attention a little weird for you?

STEVE: At times it is, but I just want to try to make a difference in the lives of other students who may be going through what I've already gone through.

ESSENCE.COM: What advice would you give someone who is growing up in foster care, reading this story and saying, there's no way I can do what she does?

STEVE: Be determined to overcome any obstacles. They have to understand that your past doesn't determine your future.

ESSENCE.COM: What would you say to President Obama if you got the chance to meet him?

STEVE: I would say that I'm so happy that he chose me for his speech on education. I think the way he's challenging us is great and he's still challenging me today. Even though I overcame a lot of obstacles, he's still challenging me to do my best and create my own destiny. I would thank him for that.



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