As she trudged with her mother back to the shelter, Alicia Zamora practiced her reading on billboards. She counted bathroom tiles with her brother for fun. Sometimes she even pored over the nutrition facts on the back of a box of crackers or apple juice. She also remembers going without food at all.

Alicia had trouble hearing in school, plagued with ear infections that her mother chalked up to the stuffy air in the homeless shelter. They were lucky to get a room of their own, but her mom was so leery of the used beds that she bought an air mattress for them to sleep on. Alicia got in trouble when she popped it.

Fourteen years later, it would be easy for Alicia to shelve those memories away. Now she is known as the Madison High valedictorian, the prom queen, the girl going on to Harvard University. But that world has never drifted far from her mind. You can still hear it there, even as she rhapsodizes about college.

“Everyone gets the same meal plan and you get to swipe your card as many times as you want, as much food as you want, and then you get a place to sleep with a bed and a heater and a desk and it’s paid for,” Alicia said breathlessly on a recent afternoon. “That’s like all I need. Just food and a place to sleep.”

It has the ring of a Cinderella story: The girl who was homeless and ended up in the Ivy League. Alicia Zamora chalks it up to luck. She had many fairy godmothers: teachers who listened to her, a counselor who hooked her up with colleges, a nonprofit that held her hand through college applications, and a caring brother who paved the way before her, going to the University of California, San Diego.

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Luck only goes so far. Alicia is also bright. Megawatt bright. She gets excited talking about all the subplots that Charles Dickens crammed into his novels. When she turned in a draft of her graduation speech, Madison High had to ask her to dumb it down. (It hinged on a biology metaphor about mitosis.)

And her intelligence goes further than her stratospheric scores, deeper than the daunting vocabulary. It surfaces when she talks about the struggles of her life. “You can choose to just give up and rot into yourself, have this horrible feeling and let it fester,” Alicia said. “Or use school as an outlet or just find something else.”

She became homeless when she was four years old, when her mother left her father. Alicia remembers being in the back of a police car that night alongside her mother and brother, heading to a shelter in Oceanside. They slept there for weeks, then another shelter, then switched to a St. Vincent de Paul shelter downtown.

She remembers being hopeful when her mother landed an apartment. Then her father sued for custody. One day at school someone came to take her and her brother away, to stay with an aunt they had never met in Chula Vista. Alicia didn’t understand. She remembers telling her cousin, “I want to go home.”

He replied, “You are home, silly!”

The courts decided to hand them first to their aunt, then to their father. Alicia was eight. She doesn’t like talking about the many years with her father that followed, all the way up to her junior year of high school. She calls that time “living without a voice,” constantly afraid of doing something wrong.

She believes that those same difficult years also prodded her to achieve, turning to school to find her purpose. In one of her college essays, she writes, “This man pushed me toward the brink of self-doubt and confusion and, unintentionally, cultivated my need for success.”

Instead of disappearing into depression, Alicia threw herself into Madison High, staying at school to avoid going home. When counselor Carol Sobek came to work in the morning, Alicia was in her office doing homework. When the last bell rang, Alicia stayed to sweat it out on the cross-country team.

“I’d tell her to do this much of a workout, and if she didn’t do it the way she wanted to, she’d say, ‘Can I do more?’” said Andy Gell, her coach. “And I’d say, ‘No, because I don’t want you to kill yourself.”

She snagged the top spot in her senior class. Madison High created a whole new award to honor her. Even when the superintendent feted her and the other grinning valedictorians of San Diego Unified in a glassy pavilion at SeaWorld, Alicia lugged along her political science textbook to study for an exam.

But Madison was much more than a grindstone to distract her. It became another home. Sobek talked out teen worries with her and ferreted out chances for Alicia to visit colleges. Alicia confided in Gell and traded music with history teacher Will Hawthorne, indie faves like Sufjan Stevens and Pixies to escape into after class. School staff even pooled their money to buy her a laptop for college.

Alicia still saw her mother off and on, sometimes in the summers. But when she couldn’t reach her mother and didn’t want to turn to her father, her teachers and her counselor were there.

“We were her parents. We believed in her,” Sobek said.

Sobek nudged her to apply to the top colleges and prized scholarships, wowed by her grades and SAT scores. Zamora also got into Reality Changers, an after-school program for teens who are the first in their families to go to college. There she got another nudge and learned to tell her story to colleges.

“When bad things happen, they make for good college essays,” said Grace Chaidez, who helped Alicia put her story on paper at Reality Changers. “The things you overcome really show your character.”

When Hawthorne read one of her essays, it floored him. He already had a sense that Alicia had been through something difficult. But he was stunned that she was brave enough to share it with him.

“If you are ashamed of things they will always be something that someone can hold over your head,” Hawthorne told her. “Don’t be ashamed of any of this. None of it’s your fault.”

When she got into Dartmouth College, she sat with Hawthorne dumbfounded, repeating, “This can’t be real. I don’t believe it.” When she got into Harvard, she convinced herself it must be Harvard Community College. (She never applied to a Harvard Community College.) But nobody else was surprised.

“I knew something good was going to happen to her,” her mother, Rebecca McGarrahan, said. “I was lucky that they learned from me what happens if you don’t finish school, if you don’t get a skill.”

Last year McGarrahan filed a new case and won back custody of Alicia in another court battle. Her older brother had already left to stay with their mom; Alicia put her things in a pillowcase and joined them in City Heights. She says that now, living with them, she finally feels like an ordinary teen.

In her last year of high school, the hesitant girl who hid behind her clouds of curls began to unfurl. Her graduation speech is speckled with inside jokes about choking on yogurt and “trying to impress the new Italian kid.” She ended up going to prom with that Italian kid — and was crowned queen in her Malcolm-X-style glasses and a cotton dress off the H&M clearance rack.

Telling and retelling her story has sometimes been uncomfortable for Alicia. Only a few of her friends know much about her history. She doesn’t want to be pitied. Instead she is aflutter with dreams.

She wants to study history and anthropology, take Spanish and learn more about Latin America. She wants to join the Peace Corps. In short, she wants to change the world. And you can’t help hoping that Alicia Zamora does end up changing the world, seeing just how much she changed hers.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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