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Student overcomes homelessness to achieve, inspire others

October 07, 2010

When she and her mother had to sleep on the street, Romonia “Mona” Dixon would pull out a bag of books she brought home from elementary school and read by the street light. She’d cover up with her mother’s jacket and pretend she was one of the characters in a book, and it made her feel safe.

That was just a few years ago, on the nights when the homeless shelters in San Diego were full. When she was 10 they moved to Tempe, where they continued to live in shelters until the family got into public housing.

Now she’s a 17-year-old freshman living in Barrett, the Honors College, and the books she reads continue to inspire her and take her to far-off places in her mind.

Dixon won the title of National Youth of the Year from the Boys & Girls Clubs this fall, selected over hundreds of teenagers from across the country. She earned more than $100,000 in scholarships.

But her grit and determination led her to apply to ASU even before she won the award, as she excelled at Tempe High School with a 3.92 grade-point average and was captain of the basketball team. She was in the National Honor Society and student council, and she volunteered to read to children at a shelter where she used to live.

“I’ve always wanted to come to ASU,” says Dixon, who is in the W. P. Carey School of Business and wants to become a purchasing manager. “At the Boys and Girls Club they got tickets to ASU football and basketball games, and the games were really fun for me. I knew I’d have fun here and get a good education.

“People ask why I don’t go to Harvard, now that I have all these scholarships. But I’m a very family-oriented person, and I didn’t want to go too far. Why go to Harvard when here you have a great honors college, a wonderful business school and a supply chain management program that’s fourth in the nation?”

What surprises her is the amount of reading assigned in classes and the number of student activities available. The assigned reading in her Human Event class —“The Oresteia” and the “Tao Te Ching,” among others-- blows her mind, she says.

“I didn’t think I would like the class. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of the books at first, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m in for it.’ But I love that class now. Professor Popova gives us a lot of background, and I’m understanding it.

“There are so many different things I want to do here, but I’m still learning time management, so next year I’ll be able to join more activities.”

Dixon had to miss a week of classes in mid-September when she went to Washington, D.C. for the national competition. She began her climb by winning the East Valley Youth of the Year award in March, and then the Pacific Region Youth of the Year in July.

At each round of the award process she impressed panels of judges with her perseverance through poverty and homelessness.

The climax was meeting President Barack Obama at the White House, where he spent about 15 minutes with her and the other four finalists.

“He told me I have a very bright future,” she says. “He said he was proud of me and that I inspire people. To be told that by President Obama, who inspires me, was amazing.”

Dixon started going to the Ladmo-Tempe branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs after school when she was 13. She and her family were often separated, switching back and forth between public housing and staying with friends. It was a difficult, embarrassing time for her.

“Being in an uncontrollable situation with my family, I knew I didn’t want to have to live like that. People have always told me that if I worked hard I could accomplish anything, and I believed it.

“I knew I could always go to the Boys and Girls Club and there would be things to do. I could run around and laugh and have fun.

“They have tutors and mentors there who helped me and guided me all these years. They gave me leadership training. They even helped me move into the dorm. I still work there on Saturdays, and I go there whenever I have time, to help with tutoring.”

Dixon, who also wants to be a motivational speaker one day, hopes to get other ASU students interested in volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club. She recently signed up her 12-year-old brother at the Ladmo-Tempe club.

“It’s just like a family there. I’ll always go back, even if my career takes me elsewhere, because they made all this possible for me. In the last year my whole life has changed.”