ATLANTA - High school graduation means so much to seniors, especially those who have worked hard to earn their diplomas. For one southwest Atlanta teen, that diploma is a ticket out of the group home she was sent to after tragedy turned her life upside down a few years ago.
Nia Peace Duncan, 18, has been practicing her Booker T. Washington High School graduation speech for weeks, hoping people will learn valuable lessons from heartbreaking lessons she's learned the hard way.
"The world doesn't stop just because you suddenly got thrown into foster care. The world doesn't stop because your dad went to jail or just because someone you hold dear is now deceased. Life just keeps going on after something bad happens and you have to do the same thing," the southwest Atlanta native told FOX 5's Portia Bruner just days before she graduated from high school.
Nia was just 14 when she ended up in foster care; separated from her 8 and 10 year old siblings.
"In ninth grade, I was definitely feeling sorry for myself. I was angry and couldn't understand why this was happening to me and my family, but by tenth grade I just realized I had to get over it and I knew getting a college education would be my only way out of this," Nia said. "The thing that motivated me was that I knew I had to be a good example for my little brother and sister. I didn't want them to think this was the end. I didn't want them to fall into the statistics that kids in foster care fall into. I had to graduate and I had to show them we can go to college for free."
Nia joined the school chorus, student government, Future Business Leaders of America and the Math Honor Society. She asked for permission to stay up late and work in the computer lab at her group home so that she could maintain a strong grade point average and prepare dozens of scholarship essays.
By the last stretch of her senior year, Nia's work and resilience had paid off. She's earned $700,000 worth of scholarships, including the prestigious Gates Scholarship.
Nia, who's name means "purpose" in Swahili, says the money will cover room, board and tuition through graduate school. She will attend Brandeis University in Massachusetts with several other Booker T. Washington students and plans to major in International Studies and Business.
Nia told FOX 5 she hopes to head to Law School after undergraduate school.
"When I walk across that stage, I am going to feel so liberated. It's going to be like stepping into a new world with new opportunities. I know I'm what the world has been waiting for because I am a living witness to what can happen when you overcome life's hardships," she said ahead of graduation.
Nia said one of the many reasons she's looking forward to graduation Thursday is that her younger brother and sister will be there. She said she hopes her siblings, who were much younger when they had to go into foster care, will be inspired by her academic success and follow in her footsteps.