(CLEVELAND COUNTY, N.C.) — After returning from a prestigious academic summer program in Raleigh, N.C., last summer, Dawn Loggins found her parents had left. To complete her high school senior year, she began “couch-surfing” in friends’ houses. She’d wake up at 5:20 a.m. each day, begin work as a school custodian, focus on a roster of advanced placement and honors courses, complete more custodial work and then hit the books.
The early mornings and late nights paid off. Now, she will graduate from Burns High School in Cleveland County, N.C. Next, she is headed to Harvard University.
Dawn spent much of her life moving frequently from one home to another and attending a number of different schools. Despite the circumstances, she said, she was committed to doing whatever was necessary to excel in school.
“Education is a means to make something better of myself,” she told ABC News.
Dawn recalled having to do homework by candlelight because the power had been disconnected and having to cook noodles on a wood stove after her mother and stepfather lost their jobs. Focusing on her school work, she said, helped her deal with the family’s circumstances. She had no idea what she might have to deal with next.
After she returned last summer to find her parents gone, she found she had no way to reach them because their phone services had been disconnected. Determined to complete her senior year at Burns, Dawn stayed for a few days at a time at the homes of friends until finally finding a home with Sheryl Kolton, a friend’s mother who was also a custodian at the school. It would be a few months before she learned that her parents had gone to Tennessee for a visit and decided to stay.
Dawn’s school year consisted of very long days. After cleaning for two hours, she would begin her school day of tough classes, including AP U.S. history, AP calculus, and honors English, and she participated in various school clubs and honor societies. After school and two more hours of cleaning work, she’d still have hours of homework, often keeping her up until midnight or 2 a.m. The late nights paid off as Dawn earned at 3.9 GPA and scored 2,110 on her SAT. She was committed to not just graduating high school, but finding a way to go to college.
“A high school diploma doesn’t mean anything if you don’t do anything with it,” she said.
She began applying to colleges with the help of her counselor and a friend of the school’s principal. She initially applied to Davidson College, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Warner Wilson College. After the persistent urging of those helping her, she also applied to Harvard.
The acceptance letters started arriving, mostly in larger, thick envelopes. Then one day, an envelope arrived from Harvard.
“It was a small envelope; you never want a small envelope,” she said.
But inside was a letter admitting Dawn into the Harvard class of 2016.
“I was kind of surprised,” she said. “I didn’t jump and down or scream or cry or anything, but I was happy. I guess I’m not easily exited. I’m not a very emotional person.”
But Dawn wasn’t so sure that she would be heading to Massachusetts — not until she was able to visit this spring, thanks to school staff pooling their money to pay for her trip.
“After visiting Harvard, I couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” she said.
Dawn will receive financial aid from Harvard and get an on-campus job to help pay for tuition, room and board. She also has saved money from her job to help with books and other essentials.
As for her field of study, Dawn plans to major in biology and is considering a career in biomedical research. When asked what she is most looking forward to as she heads off to college, her reply was one word.
“Stability,” she said.
Dawn reflected on her life growing up and said she just wants to be able support herself and not worry about losing power or not being able to buy food.
Even though her mother may not have been the best mom, she said, she still loves her parents. Both will be at her high school graduation.
Dawn wants to focus on her future, not her past, and hopes that she can motivate other students, like her two younger sisters, to further their education beyond high school in order to have a better life.
“I’m in a good place right now,” she said. “I have a lot of community support.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Sara Stewart, CNN
Eliza Mackintosh, CNN