MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A Soulsville Charter School alumna has returned to her roots as this year’s commencement speaker.
Stephani Brownlee earned valedictorian of Soulsville’s Class of 2013.
"I have to admit, there were times I wanted to give up,” said Brownlee.
The 23-year-old's journey is remarkable.
She was raised by her grandmother Patti, after her mom died when she was five years old.
"I was bullied a lot in elementary school, you know, because I'm the kid that didn't have a mom,” said Brownlee.
Her grandmother insisted she enroll at Soulsville Charter School in South Memphis.
"It changed my life in so many ways. First of all, it changed me. It gave me a safety net to be comfortable and to be myself,” said Brownlee.
She learned piano, which was her passion in the seventh grade.
In ninth grade, she joined Stax Music Academy.
Brownlee took multiple AP classes. Her strengths were in science and biology.
She wrote and conducted her own symphony in high school and was invited to the White House by Michelle Obama in 2013.
"I'm just so excited just to represent Memphis,” said Brownlee.
She participated in a History of Soul workshop in the state dining room and was awarded a $200,000 scholarship to Brown University.
She received her undergrad degree in biology, then she earned a master's in criminology and criminal justice from Florida State.
She took a job with the Homeland Security Department and is now working on a second master's in cyber security at Harvard.
"She’s amazing! We’re so proud of her,” said Rachel Cox, Soulsville Charter School counselor.
Stephani credits her success to the school.
"Soulsville was preparing me for this thing called life,” said Brownlee.
She also credits her success to her grandmother Patti's advice.
“'Whatever you put into your life, that’s what you get out of it. So if you wanna be successful, it’s up to you, Stephani,'" said Brownlee.
She is scheduled to graduate Harvard next year in December.