A quick look at her background and one may not expect to see someone like Tamia Spells among the thousands of students graduating from Virginia Tech this spring. She grew up in a rough area of Washington, D.C. Her mom was just 14-years-old when Spells was born and her father was shot and killed when she was just two.

While she had plenty of things that may normally hold a young person back, Spells – a senior majoring in political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and University Honors student – defied the odds.

Now, she says she hopes to help other disadvantaged students do the same, starting with a position through Teach for America. She will work with elementary students in Miami-Dade County, Fla., for the next two years. Eventually, she says she hopes to get her doctorate in educational policy and work to fix some of the problems in the nation’s education system.

“Teach for America seemed like the most rewarding route to take to get into education,” Spells said. “I want to experience teaching first before I work on policy. I think that’s a problem now – a lot of people that go into policy telling people what they need to do but they’ve never experienced it themselves.”

Spells has never been to Miami, but put it as a top choice knowing it would get her out of her comfort zone. The area turned out to be ideal, as well, because the charter school that helped propel her to pursue a college education – the SEED School of Washington, D.C. – is opening up a school in Miami this year.

“I will still have a family, in a sense, down there. The head of schools for the new SEED School in Miami was actually my principal in Washington, D.C. She’s already been talking about me down there and telling people I am coming,” Spells said. “I’m already connected and I’ve never been to Miami in my 21 years of life yet.”

During her second year of commitment with Teaching for America, Spells will balance her teaching load with graduate classes for a master’s degree in education and social change from the University of Miami. She wants to go on for a doctorate in educational policy, ideally pursuing a career that balances research with advocacy and legislative work. In particular, she says she hopes to change the public education system in areas like her hometown.

“I want to change the public education system in Washington, D.C., because it is failing,” Spells said. “There needs to be more people like me, who are from my background, who shouldn’t have to be limited from a college education because they are not prepared or weren’t exposed to dealing with a challenge in an academic environment.”

For Spells, just coming to Virginia Tech was a challenge – moving hours away and out of the city to a rural environment. She made it her home, however, by getting involved, taking on leadership roles, and building relationships with students and faculty.

“Get connected to the university. Get engaged. Meet professors. And make sure you pursue all your interests,” Spells said.

Spells made her own connections to the university through undergraduate research, being an ambassador for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, volunteering for the Yates Project, working at the Student Success Center with pre-college students, and even covering sports for the student-run television station, VTTV, among other activities.

She said many opportunities came her way by being a good student. “Not just getting good grades, but participating, coming to class, sitting in the front, and being interactive, so professors were eager to know me, who I am, and my story,” Spells said. “Being a good student brought more opportunities to me because my professors were mentors and allies.”

Now, Spells is preparing for her next big adventure, as she will move to Miami this summer. Before then, however, she will celebrate as she expects a large crowd of her family and friends to come see her at commencement.

“I feel like commencement is more for them than it is for me,” Spells said. “I am excited for them to come and witness it, especially my younger siblings and cousins who will see it as tangible for them and something they can achieve too.”