Lalita Booth’s story is one of redemption.
Booth went from homeless to Harvard, searching for a sense of purpose and emerging as a crusader for second chances.
She’s put descriptors such as high school dropout, child-abuse survivor, teenage mother, homeless parent and welfare recipient behind her. Now she’s embracing a new identity: Harvard University graduate.
The University of Central Florida alumna walked across the platform at Tercentenary Theater on May 24 to accept master’s degrees in public policy and business from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School.
“It was a privilege and honor to walk across that stage with the rest of my joint degree class,” said Booth. “They constitute an incredibly inspiring, world-changing group of scholars and public servants, and it meant the world to me that we were able to study and graduate together.”
Booth earned her associate’s degree from Seminole State College in 2006 before graduating from UCF in 2009 with dual bachelor’s degrees in finance and accounting.
Prestigious awards such as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship and the Harry S. Truman Scholarship funded Booth’s education and helped her graduate debt-free. But the timeframes attached to the awards meant rigorous, continuous schooling. Booth never missed a semester of school since first enrolling at Seminole Community College in 2004.
“I’m finally able to breathe,” she said.
Booth’s journey began in Asheville, N.C., nearly a decade ago. A tumultuous childhood led to life as a teenage runaway, which included a short-lived marriage and the birth of a son, Kieren. As a single-mom, she struggled with homelessness and poverty before moving cross-country with a boyfriend. When money and childcare became too hard to come by, Booth was forced to send Keiren to live with his paternal grandparents.
Though Booth eventually found fruitful work in Colorado, an illness in her boyfriend’s family drove the young couple to relocate to Florida. Reunited with Kieren, the couple settled in Sanford, but work was harder to come by in Central Florida and the relationship came to an end.
Booth quickly became determined to provide for her son and break the cycle of poverty, and she found her salvation through education.
She enrolled at Seminole State College, where she thrived in her classes, participated in extracurriculars, and took a trip to Austria to help solve global problems along with international students. Booth also met her husband, Benjamin, at Seminole State. The two were debate team partners and married in 2007.
At UCF, Booth was a student in the Burnett Honors College and earned many of the university’s top awards, including Order of Pegasus.
It was also at UCF that she combined her prior experience with poverty and new knowledge about financial stability to found Lighthouse for Dreams, a financial literacy program aimed at educating and empowering high schoolers.
Booth applied to Harvard with the hope of continuing to grow the program’s mission and developing empowerment-based reforms to the welfare system to help curb poverty in the United States.
“Disadvantaged youth were my target,” she said. “I knew I wanted to educate them.”
She was accepted to Harvard and decided to focus her education on leadership studies and social policy. If she could understand the fundamental issues affecting the welfare system, Booth said, she could leverage her personal experience with her knowledge and help people avoid the pitfalls of poverty.
At Harvard, Booth balanced her limited spare time with tutoring economic students, public speaking, creating a start-up business related to sustainability, and other side projects. One of her endeavors included a consulting job with Year Up, a national nonprofit whose mission mirrors hers. Year Up aims to close the opportunity divide by providing underserved youth with opportunities and support that will empower them to reach their full potentials and maintain economic self-sufficiency.
Nearing the end of her studies, Booth applied for the Harvard Business School Leadership Fellowship, which gives nonprofits the ability to leverage the talents of Harvard graduates with interest in public sector work by helping with salary costs. Nonprofits select students to work for them, and Harvard matches the students’ $45,000 salaries for one year. The fellowship allows students to work in the public sector without forgoing the potentially higher paychecks they might get from private industry, especially during a time when graduates may have debt to deal with.
Year Up selected Booth for the fellowship, and she will begin as director of special projects for the organization’s Boston office in July.
Booth’s classes wrapped up about a month ago, and she is enjoying her free time in Boston with Benjamin and Kieren, who she describes as a typical 12-year-old.
“I feel really grateful, because I’ve always wanted to work in public service,” she said. “I want to be giving back, and I can afford to do that.”