New Orleans native Talitha Halley’s world was turned upside down when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. At only 12-years-old, Halley along with her mother and sister were forced to move from their hometown and relocate to Texas.
But Halley didn’t let the uproot stop her. The now 22-year-old just graduated from Howard University, making her the first person in her family to graduate college, and she has dreams of going to law school and beyond.
You were only 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit. What was that experience like for you?
My mom works weekends, so we didn’t leave in time to evacuate before the hurricane. The only option that we had was to either stay home or go to the Superdome. At first, it was only available for people with disabilities, but when they figured out that some people hadn’t had a chance to leave, they opened it up to everyone. We stayed there for seven days and lived there with thousands of other people who weren’t able to leave before the hurricane.
After seven days in the Superdome, we took a bus to Houston. We were brought to the Astrodome, but luckily, my mom has a sister who lives in Houston, so we were able to stay with her for some time.
After a while, we moved into a shelter, and I started school at Sugarland Middle School. We eventually got an apartment, and I started high school at Sharpstown High School. Having never been exposed to public school, it was a transition for me. The other transition for us what the economic aspect of it. My mom never really fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. She was making more money in New Orleans than she would’ve ever made in Houston. I would even say that 10 years later, we’re still trying to recover from that financially.
However, I met people in Houston who encouraged me to do greater things. I was exposed to an organization called Communities In Schools that had a focus group for students who were Hurricane Katrina Survivors. In that group, I found a new home and eventually started to get the acclimated to high school. During my sophomore year I was inducted into the magnet program and my junior year, I applied for the [now-defunct] Congressional Page Program, a program in Washington where you live in D.C. and work for Congress. In 2010, I was picked out of 300 applicants in the Houston area to be a congressional page for Congressman Al Green. I always knew that applying was kind of just a leap of faith.
How did that experience help you get to where you are now?
While I was in D.C., one of my proctors took us on college tours. Howard wasn't initially on the list, but I asked if we could visit, and we did. My first time on Howard University’s campus—as cliché as it may sound—I fell in love. It felt right for me, and though I knew I was going to go to college, I never thought in-depth of where I wanted to go. I ended up going back home and saying, ‘I’m going to Howard University.’ I did everything in my power to get back. And one of my mentors in Houston believed in me enough to say, ‘Hey. I know you want this, and I believe in you and I’m going to help you get to Howard.’ She gave me enough money to make an initial down payment at Howard, and after that, other people in the community began donating as well.
You just graduated—now what?
I studied political science, but I have to be completely honest: I would like to go to law school, open my own fashion law firm and eventually become a congresswoman. Right now, I'm working in media and wardrobe styling on the weekends before I jump into such a rigorous career.
You’re the first person in your family to attend college. What does that mean to you?
For me, that means I have a responsibility to be great, to ensure that I continue to break hte mold so that my niece and nephes can have a better life as well as someone to look up to. I understand that my life is not my own. This was something that I was supposed to do. This was in God’s plan for me. I was supposed to break the mold for the rest of my family.