From a young age, Angelle Edwards held a singular drive: to build a future for herself. She grew up as a first-generation American in a place where academic achievement often took a back seat to the harsh realities of living in an impoverished neighborhood.

“Despite all of the struggles and challenges I faced, I’m beating the odds,” she said as she prepares to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “I will be the first in my immediate family to graduate from college, and I’m incredibly proud of my accomplishment.”

The eldest of four children, she was raised in the traditional Caribbean cultural way. “I was taught at a very early age that three things are important in life: God, family, and education,” Edwards said. “So when my friends were having fun and breaking the rules, I was hitting the books, labeled as a teacher’s pet, and learning how to cook and clean for a family of six.”

Edwards loved school. She was active in sports, served as the president of her junior class, was a member of National Honor Society, and ultimately graduated third in her class. She felt completely prepared for college — until she arrived.

She was overwhelmed by the accomplishments of the other incoming freshmen at Rensselaer, by the diversity of the student body, and by her daunting academic schedule. She suffered from a severe case of culture shock. “I didn’t really have a mentor to follow who had chosen the path that I was choosing, so I became my own role model,” Edwards said.

Architecture proved to be a harder field of study than she anticipated, but she worked with eagle-eyed focus on getting her work done and making sure she would be able to fulfill her goal of studying abroad.

Edwards studied in Argentina in her junior year, which she said provided her a new perspective on life in the United States. “It was a life-changing moment and one that I will never forget,” Edwards said. “It helped me grow in my profession and also contributed to my own self-growth.”

Edwards’ story is an inspiring reminder that the combination of a clear goal and hard work can truly take you farther than you ever thought possible. While the COVID-19 pandemic will prevent her from experiencing a traditional graduation ceremony in May, Edwards said she doesn’t need the pomp and circumstance.

“All I need is my diploma and a nice dinner surrounded by my family and it will all be worth it to me,” she said. “This diploma is for them. It’s to show my little siblings that they can do anything, to make my parents proud, and to show other black kids that, though the odds may be against us, history shows time and time again that we can overcome.”

After graduating, Edwards plans to begin work at Method Design Architecture + Urbanism in Manhattan.