Eight years ago, Que Newbill’s daily life, but not his vision, was circumscribed by four light-yellow walls of an extended-stay motel in Marietta.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about the then-17-year-old, homeless and living with his mother and two sisters, just as signals were beginning to come in that their bad luck was coming to an end.
His mother and father had split years before, and the family had been driven to the hotel by one sister’s serious illness, medical bills and the resulting interrupted work of his mom, Yoaka Hicks-Newbill. But Que had just applied for and won a $1,000 college scholarship from the alumni association of Wheeler High School, his east Cobb County alma mater.
Flash forward to this fall, when Newbill received a $30,000 scholarship from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to Columbia Law School, and the local alumni association has to be proud of the start they helped give him.
“I had teachers who were looking out for me and individuals who were willing to stick their necks out for me,” Newbill said.
And he’s trying to do the same for others. The Earl Warren Scholarship targets talented law students — this is Newbill’s first year — pursuing careers in racial justice and civil rights. He has not yet selected a specific area of expertise — Housing law? Criminal defense? Civil rights? He has time to figure that out, he says.
His choice reflects his past, which he has not tried to leave behind or forget. Rather than be embarrassed about his homelessness, he embraced it for what it was. Que believed his experiences shaped him in positive ways.
“Everything that has happened has made me who I am,” he wrote in college applications years ago. “I’m not using my background as an excuse.”
More than a dozen colleges accepted him as a potential student.
While in college, he drew on his experience and knowledge when he interned for the Coalition for Homelessness and the Mental Health Association in San Francisco, and for the Georgia Innocence Project, which seeks to free those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. It played a role when he worked with young people in Jordan at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, and as a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace fellow in Washington.
And his background was mentioned recently when the law-school scholarship was given to him.
It’s been a long, interesting and occasionally painful journey from the day that Newbill shared his story with the AJC in 2007. The initial publicity helped him draw in support and encouragement, with donations to his education and help for his family.
Two years later, his older sister, Iysha, died while he was attending Oglethorpe University. She had suffered from a rare form of lupus for years, and Newbill had helped care for her.
As with his homelessness, he moves past the pain into hope.
“My older sister is someone who left an indelible mark on my life,” he said. “Her love for all people. Seeing her courage to live her life despite her limitations will forever inspire me. That is the fire that I think people see in me. I think about my sister every day, and even when I struggle I remember her perseverance through her declining health. I take that with me every single day I am in law school.”
His younger sister, Tasjah, is in the Air Force. His mother is still in Georgia, doing OK, Newbill said.
At this time of year, he has plenty to be thankful for, and he recognizes the help he has received by paying it back and forward.
He has mentored students of every age and helped create a curriculum to help San Francisco police better understand and help people they work with who are in a crisis; he helped create student service initiatives in college, and he advises on giving college scholarships, including the prestigious Fulbright program.
“To be sure, I work hard and I am definitely dedicated and determined to succeed,” he said. “But I am also just lucky. There are so many other young people who come from backgrounds, other young black males, who are just as smart and brilliant and capable, but who are not given the opportunity to show it.”
“I am so grateful to the people who have invested in my life and I think any success I have is definitely some reflection of that.”