From Homeless to Hopeful
Recent graduate overcomes adversity, inspires others
Kent State University graduate Monique Menefee, ’13, is starting another busy day. After getting 13-year-old daughter Joy off to school, the Cleveland native begins tackling a schedule filled with meetings, tutoring, planning for graduate school, and her work as a graduate student trustee on Kent State’s Board of Trustees. Not that long ago, Menefee was homeless and living in her car. She was working part-time at Family Dollar, grabbing food from wherever she could – friends, family and occasionally even relying on the kindness of strangers.
Turns her life around
But Menefee refused to believe her situation was hopeless. She decided it was time for a change, and set out on a course for turning her life around. “I kind of got fed up with my life and the direction we were going,” Menefee says. “I went into KeyBank every single day asking for a job, and I eventually got one.”
Menefee worked for three years at the bank, and received invaluable support and training while there. She realized that she needed to go back to school if she was to further her success. In 2007, Menefee signed up for classes at Cuyahoga Community College, and her hard work there attracted attention.
“I started to exceed expectations and to excel, and my professors and administrators took notice,” Menefee explains. “They took me under their wing and started grooming me. I worked on three associate degrees simultaneously while being a single mom and while still working for minimum wage.”
Despite her academic progress, life was still very difficult for Menefee and her daughter. The neighborhood they were living in was debilitated, drug-ridden and dangerous. Somehow, Menefee found inspiration in her difficult surroundings. “Every time I wanted to quit, I would go outside on my porch and look around at the neighborhood, and look at all the homes that were boarded up and plastered with graffiti, and it just kind of motivated me,” Menefee says.
Menefee went on to earn three associate degrees at Tri-C and was selected to serve a one-year term as board student scholar. “I always had wonderful people around me to motivate me and to encourage me just to keep going,” Menefee says. “They talked to me about going to Kent State because I was always thinking about getting a four-year degree.”
Becomes McNair Scholar at Kent State
Menefee started at Kent State in the fall of 2010 studying Spanish translation and continued her diligent approach to her studies. In 2011, she was accepted in the university’s prestigious McNair Scholars Program, a federal initiative to prepare first-generation, low-income, undergraduate students for doctoral study.
Dana Lawless-Andric, ’01, executive director, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Special Projects, first met Menefee when she was chosen to speak at a TRIO achievement luncheon last year. Kent State is home to five TRIO programs — federally funded college opportunity initiatives that motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their pursuit of a college degree.
“When Monique told her story and told of her challenges and what the TRIO programs have done to help her get where she is today, it just spoke to all of us,” Lawless-Andric says. “I was blown away with her drive, her motivation and the eagerness and the openness in her spirit. She wants to take advantage of every opportunity she can to grow, to learn and be the very best mom, student and individual that she can be.”
Oscar Ramos, program director with Kent State’s Academic Success Center, also was impressed by Menefee’s attitude, perspective and work ethic. “When she first started in our program, she was a student receiving tutoring,” Ramos says. “It wasn’t long before she was on the other side of the table — providing tutoring for those that come here to get help.”
Ramos feels that Menefee’s mindset is what sets her apart. “She has a way of taking really unfortunate events and circumstances and turning those things into opportunities that she can learn from,” Ramos says. “She doesn’t become a victim of her circumstances. She uses them as a way of learning and growing.”
Sees her future in higher education
Menefee graduated from Kent State in May, but has not yet decided where she will pursue her graduate studies. She has set her sights on a career in higher education administration, perhaps one that utilizes her fluency in Spanish. “One avenue that I’ve considered is working with education-abroad programs in Spanish-speaking countries,” she says. In August 2012, Menefee had the opportunity to travel to Argentina for a month to conduct primary research and work on her Spanish.
“She’s very persistent, which is a very important characteristic to have,” Lawless-Andric explains. “She has this combination of spirit and drive and motivation.”
Lawless-Andric and Ramos have the good fortune of working with a lot of exceptional students, but both agree that another characteristic that makes Menefee special is her desire to help others. “I love her drive to make things better for others,” Lawless-Andric says. “She’s paving the way for those who follow her.”
Ramos feels that Menefee’s outward focus is all the more remarkable given the hurdles she has faced. “After she overcomes an obstacle, she’s looking for somebody else in her life whom she can help to overcome some of the same things,” Ramos says. “It’s not all about her; it’s about the greater good.”
Menefee’s positive attitude is both inspiring and infectious. “I went from sleeping in my car to being an honors student on my way to getting my doctorate degree,” Menefee says. “Anything is possible. I believe it.”
Menefee is happy to share her inspirational story, not to put herself on a pedestal, but with the hope that she might have a positive impact on others. “Education is the key,” Menefee says with a smile. “I know that might sound like a cliché, but it’s true!”