Lalita Booth went from being a high-school dropout to an Ivy League graduate. She fought through much adversity and was determined not to let her tumultuous past define her future.
On May 24, the UCF alumna walked across the Tercentenary Theater stage to accept her master’s degrees in public policy and business from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School.
“It was wonderful to get to walk with my joint degree cohort,” Booth said. “There were only 25 of us in my program from my graduating year. I felt like it was such a real privilege and honor to walk with such a dedicated and brilliant group of people.”
Some may look at Booth now and be in awe of her accomplishments, but it was no easy road to get where she is today.
She went from being abused as a child to a survivor standing up for victims’ rights, from being an impoverished teen mother to a mother able to fully support her family, and she went from being homeless to a graduate of Harvard University.
The series of unfortunate events started early in Booth’s childhood; her life took a turn for the worst when her parents’ Asheville, N.C., home was foreclosed. The foreclosure left her family with nowhere to turn; they moved from town to town seeking shelter. Booth said that by the time she was 27, she had already lived in more than 80 homes.
The lifestyle Booth and her family were living took a toll on her physically and emotionally. There came a time where she could no longer bear all of the fighting she had to endure with her family. At 16 years of age, Booth was emancipated. She was already living alone, but she decided to make it legal because it would free her to do the things she needed to do, such as sign a lease on an apartment.
Finally free from her parents, Booth was about to face some of the most challenging years of her life. At 17 years old, she got married to one of her longtime friends.
Three months later, she found out she was pregnant with her son, Kieren. The pregnancy and birth of her son left the family in deep poverty.
The circumstances they were living under left the couple in misery. After two-and-a-half years of marriage, they decided to call it quits
After the relationship ended, Booth came to a place mentally where she was ready to make a change in her life. She made numerous attempts to get on her feet, but she couldn’t escape the reality that she was now homeless.
With her son and new boyfriend, she decided to relocate to Boulder, Colo., where she would eventually give her son up temporarily to his paternal grandparents.
Booth was eventually able to secure a job in Colorado; however, an illness in her boyfriend’s family forced the couple to relocate to Sanford, Fla.
Her relationship quickly ended due to financial strains.
After all Booth had been through, she was finally ready for more, and she decided to enroll in Seminole State College of Florida. She succeeded academically, participated in extracurricular activities and traveled to Austria to attend the Salzburg Global Seminar to help solve global problems.
At Seminole State, Booth also met her husband, Benjamin. The two married in 2007. Booth earned her associate’s degree from Seminole State in 2006 and transferred to UCF.
At UCF, Booth was a student in the Burnett Honors College and earned many awards during her academic career. One of the awards included UCF’s top honor, the UCF Order of Pegasus award.
“Lalita was not only a university honor student, but she completed two honors in the major thesis, which is outstanding. She was driven to succeed and succeeded admirably. I think Lalita is a leader of distinction. We will hear her name again,” said Alvin Wang, dean of the Burnett Honors College.
It was also at UCF that Booth founded Lighthouse for Dreams, a financial literacy program aimed at educating and empowering high school students.
“My own personal journey has played a very big role in the way that I serve. I think it has always been a seed planted in me to want to be a public servant of some sort and making a positive difference in the world,” Booth said.
Booth graduated summa cum laude from UCF in 2009 with dual bachelor’s degrees in finance and accounting.
Following graduation, Booth applied to Harvard University, hoping to continue to grow the program’s mission.
She was accepted to Harvard and focused her education on leadership studies and social policy.
“I think the thing that is really worth telling about my life is that there are few students who have made the journey from homelessness to Harvard that have chosen a career in public service or who have wanted to go back and fix the problems that they once felt like entrapped them,” Booth said.
Booth feels it’s her calling to help the many in need. According to CNN.com, nearly one-third of the American middle class, mostly families with children, have fallen into poverty or are one paycheck away from poverty.
Booth was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship and the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, among others that funded Booth’s education and helped her graduate debt free.
Toward the end of her graduate school career, Booth applied for the Harvard Business School Leadership Fellowship, which gives nonprofit organizations the ability to assist Harvard graduates with interest in public sector work by helping with salary costs. Nonprofits select students and Harvard matches the students’ $45,000 salaries for one year.
Year Up selected Booth for the fellowship, and she will begin as director of special projects for the organization’s Boston office in July of this year.
Booth has grown tremendously from her past, but she is now more focused on the future and differences she hopes to make in the lives of others.
“The life that I intend to live and the difference I intend to make moving forward is the important point, and everything that has happened to me up to now I hope for it to be an interesting footnote to a much more interesting life story of service and to helping people become empowered to transition themselves from out of poverty,” she said.
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