Roy Exum: Dawn’s Road To Harvard

Monday, June 11, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is a strict rule at North Carolina’s Burns High School that demands, at graduation, there will be absolutely no applause until the last senior has accepted a diploma. It’s a good rule and very fitting, especially for those who don’t have, you know … many family members present. Last Thursday night, when the seniors from Burns borrowed the auditorium at nearby Gardner-Webb College for commencement exercises, there was no way the rule was going to work. Oh no, they’d gotten about halfway through the alphabet when Dawn Loggins stepped forward and the second she stood, the pageantry of the evening was shattered with a roar and cheers and whistles and screams unlike anything ever heard in Cleveland County.

It wasn’t because she’s the first kid from the small town of Lawndale to be headed to Harvard, either.

It’s because in this, her senior year, she has also worked as a janitor, studied advanced-placement classes by candlelight in a hovel with no running water, and fiercely overcame the fact she was abandoned and left homeless by drug-addicted parents. One more time: she was accepted by, and will attend Harvard, which had 36,000 applicants this spring.Dawn’s story is amazing but, far more, is a testament to the human spirit. As a school janitor – literally working for food – she retrieved empty snuff cans from urinals, scraped chewing gum off floors, endured the constant comments from bullies, wore the same clothes for days and often was forced to go without a shower.

Seriously. She would go to parks and convenience stores, fill plastic jugs with water just to flush her toilet. She actually attended four high schools, back where her parents still had her, and was horribly behind when she dug in her heels, silently screamed “Not me!” inside her hearty soul, and commenced a charge toward excellence that will rival any in North Carolina’s history.

The winsome blonde took online courses to make up lost ground and, by last summer, had been invited to attend the prestigious Governor’s School of North Carolina, a six-week residential program that lures the brightest kids in the state. Trouble is, while she was there her parents left her for good. Just poof. Her grandmother was in a homeless shelter and Dawn Loggins, fresh from Governor’s School, was on the street all by herself. Sheryl Kolton, a bus driver who also heads the janitorial staff at Burns High, took Dawn in and just the stability alone blossomed a star. With Sheryl gently nurturing her and a constant dose of encouragement, Dawn has now run a race that has captured the attention of all four major networks, countless newspapers and netted an interview with Anderson Cooper.

"A lot of people use bad situations as an excuse,” she told Fox News. “Instead of doing that, I turned the bad things around into motivation to succeed and do well," Loggins said. "I felt like it would be so easy and even acceptable if I were to just say – you know what, I give up, I can’t do this in this situation, but I didn’t. I knew that if I wanted to make something of myself and I didn’t want to live like this when I got older, I had to get it done."

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Many faculty members at Burns have helped her with clothing, even make-up tips, and pooled their funds to send her to summer orientation in Cambridge, Mass, but Dawn takes nothing for granted. "All the help in the world isn’t going to do you any good if you're not willing to work hard," she said. "I think people were so willing to help me because they saw that I was reaching for my goals, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me."

As word of last Thursday night’s heroic graduation has gone viral, strangers from all over the world are clamoring to help her and are calling the school to see how they can make donations towards Dawn’s college expenses. She got a full scholarship but still has to buy her books and such. Dawn, recognizing the impact of her story, said she only wants to be an inspiration, if she can, to other abandoned kids and is literally starting a foundation that will help kids in poverty. She remembers a dentist who gave her toothpaste, for Pete’s sake, so she knows how the littlest kindnesses can suddenly be the biggest thing in a kid’s life.

Dawn took a brief vacation this past weekend – I mean, she just graduated – but this week will be back at Burns High School, mopping floors and washing windows to earn money for what lies ahead. "My future is going to be great. And I know it is. And Harvard is going to make that happen. But also, it’s stability, I'm not going to have to worry about where my meals are coming from or where I’m going to sleep at night,” she said, adding softly, “ … and I’m going to have so many opportunities.”

* * *

Those wishing to send Dawn Loggins a graduation gift or a note of encouragement can do so by mailing it to: The Dawn Loggins Uplift Fund, c/o Burns High School, 307 E. Stagecoach Trail, Lawndale, N.C.,28090.

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