When Amanda Ray got pregnant at 14, her family wrote her off.
"I remember one family member, in particular, who said I was going to end up being one of 'those girls,' with three more children by the time I was 18 and living on welfare. That would be the extent of my life," said Ray.
"I came from a very impoverished home that had a lot of negative influences. There was every reason for me not to succeed."
But she has.
At 25, she is a lawyer. She graduated at the top of her high school class, worked two jobs at a time to put herself through college and law school.
She volunteers her time speaking to young women at Girls Inc. so they'll learn from her experiences.
"Even though the things I went through are painful, I can't change them. They'll go in vain if I can't share them to help others learn from them," said the attorney.
Though the hours she lost in her son's childhood years can't be reclaimed, she knows her perseverance has set an example for him.
"Hopefully, when he grows up, he'll never think about saying, 'I can't.' "
Q How did you manage caring for an infant and child care while you were in high school and working? (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
A Ray said she got her first job at Krystal - working full-time while going to high school. She and her son, Desmond, lived with an aunt in East Chattanooga. Desmond's father was not part of their lives.
The 16-year-old student would drop Desmond off at day care each weekday, then she'd take three or four hours of morning classes at Middle College High School at Chattanooga State.
After school, it was off to flip fast food; Desmond would be picked up by a grandmother until Ray came to get him when her shift ended later that night.
"He was in day care 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. After school, I would go to a second-shift job, so one of his grandparents would keep him until I got off work at 10 or 11 that night.
"I didn't live in the best part of town. I remember trying to get out of the car carrying a sleeping child, his diaper bag, my book bag, lunchbox and purse - and try to get in the house as quickly as possible for safety reasons," she described.
"After I got him bathed and in bed, then I'd sit down to study," she said.
Her grades never flagged, and she graduated with the distinction of class valedictorian.
Q When you got your own apartment in college, how did you juggle classes and work to pay your expenses?
A "I always had to work because I had to maintain a roof over my son's head and keep food in his stomach. So I always had a full-time job and more often than not, another part-time job.
"While I was in college, I started working at Convergys and Heavenly Wings. Then I worked at Parisian three years. Convergys was always full-time and the other two were part-time. I also worked one semester at SunTrust Bank."
Ray said by the time she graduated Middle College High School, she had accumulated 60 college credits, so she entered UTC as a junior. She graduated from UTC in two and a half years.
Q How could you afford college?
A "I had a HOPE Scholarship [in addition to working]. I also was given a scholarship by the Executive Women International, the Jean Bradford Memorial Scholarship. It was special. It was an extra dollar amount to pay rent, light bills, books or whatever I needed."
Ray was connected with the Executive Women through UTC's Center for Community Career Education.
According to Sandy Cole, center director, two programs for adults are offered, in addition to several for youth. She said the center assists about 3,200 people a year through its adult and youth programs.
"Life Planning, our longest program, helps women who become head of household because of death, disablement, separation or divorce.
"The Education Opportunity Center, which is where Amanda was helped, is a federally funded program that serves adults in eight counties of Tennessee and North Georgia. The sole purpose of EOC is to help adults get into college and to find the money to make that happen," said C ole.
Q When did you decide to go to law school?
A "When I graduated from UTC, I had given up on law school. The people in my family were still saying the same thing: 'You're smart but not that smart.' Growing up in my household, it was a given you'd graduate from high school, but college was never discussed.
"I didn't know a lawyer, I couldn't afford to go to law school. I didn't know they had scholarships for law school."
Ray said after considering all the hours she had lost with Desmond while pursuing her education, she took a year off from school.
"That year was solely Desmond's time. He got to play football, I got him through kindergarten. But at some point it hit me that I wanted to go to law school. I started studying for the LSAT and filling out applications."
She attended the University of Memphis Law School on a full scholarship.
Q How did you find child care for Desmond and a place for you in Memphis?
A "It was very scary. I didn't know a single person. I moved into a very bad part of town and witnessed some horrible things. Part of the time I spent in law school, my son was here living with his grandparents. That gave me time to look at day cares so, when he came back with me, I had a place for him."
During law school, Ray interned as a summer clerk with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel. The law firm made her an offer for employment during her final year at school. She is focusing on construction law and handles some general litigation.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.