How a DC man went from living in a tent to graduating with his high school diploma

Graduate Michael Jeffery addresses the audience on July 14, 2023.(WTOP/Scott Gelman)

Michael Jeffery was on his mom’s couch in Texas watching the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol when he had a thought.

Without a high school diploma, he found it hard to get a job, hard to be a father and difficult to maintain meaningful relationships.

So, on a whim, he told his mom he wanted to move to D.C. He booked a ticket soon thereafter and moved to D.C. in pursuit of a new beginning. He came without anywhere to live and without knowing anybody, but was motivated to finish his education.

On Friday at the National Press Club, Jeffrey was one of 56 graduates from Goodwill Excel Center High School in D.C., an adult charter high school that provides the opportunity to get certification and a high school diploma, rather than a GED.

He addressed his peers as valedictorian, recalling that he decided to travel to D.C. “to change the narrative on my story.”

“I just want to continue getting knowledge,” Jeffrey told WTOP. “At first, it was all about money. Now, I just want to gain knowledge. I’ve been at peace when I’m chasing knowledge instead of money.”

As he prepared to leave Texas, Jeffrey packed a bag with changes of clothing and socks. At first, he was sleeping on top of a rock, and then he slept in a tent in Navy Yard, near Garfield Park.

Upon enrolling at The Excel Center, Jeffrey took the bus back and forth to the school’s campus near the White House. He viewed it as a second chance to get his high school diploma, something he said he has long aspired to obtain.

“I just had to push myself,” Jeffrey said. “I can’t give up. I’m not a quitter.”

Normally, Jeffrey said, it’s a two-year program, but he did it in a year. He took four or five classes at a time and didn’t have much to do, so he was able to prioritize academics.

“I’m in a tent, so I have no life besides that,” he said.

His grades were often in the 90s, and if he didn’t understand a class concept, he worked on finding a tutor or other resources.

“I’m just researching how to make sure I get the best grade possible because I don’t want to settle for anything less than it,” Jeffrey said.

During his speech Friday, Jeffrey credited the school for helping him acquire knowledge.

“Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he told the group of graduates, who ranged in age from 17 to 68 years old.

Jeffrey is expected to take classes at Catholic University in the fall, with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer. He’s also moving out of the tent and into an apartment.

“Everyone had a different story. I thought my story was bad,” he said. “And then you start hearing everyone else’s story just like, ‘OK, well, I’m just exactly what I need to be then.'”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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