Indyasia Johnsondescribes herself as independent and determined—qualities she needed to beat the odds strongly stacked against her. The oldest of eight children raised by a single mother, she grew up in the rough West End of Cincinnati. Her uncle was killed when she was eight. She was held at gunpoint at 15 while her father was nearly beaten to death. In her world, teen pregnancy was so common and marriage so rare that until she began going to church as a teenager, she thought only white people got married.

Her mother was 18 when Indyasia was born, and her parents separated early on. Some of her siblings have different fathers and not all lived in the same household. Still, she had her hands full as the oldest and she thinks that “babysitter” should be included in a parenthesis after her name on her birth certificate. Part of her drive is to set an example for her younger siblings.

Her father maintained a relationship with her when he was out of prison, and she credits him for pushing her to get A’s in school. Her mother, who ran a day care center for a while, taught her to read and got her into a public Montessori school. “They teach you to think, to be independent, to manage your time wisely. There’s not always someone hovering over your shoulder telling you the next thing you need to do.” She had passionate teachers, she said.

Her mother became unemployed when she broke her ankle, needed surgery and could not walk well for several years. Indyasia worked two and three jobs from age 15. She paid her own cell phone bill, helped her siblings when they needed spending money, and paid for class trips.

She continued working and attending school after two men put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her if her father did not lead them to drug money. She had been visiting him, and the men drove up and forced the two of them into their car. They hit her father so hard that blood gushed from his head. After a terrifying ride, they dropped her off in a woods. Her father is now in prison, and she misses him.

One of her teachers wrote to the Beat the Odds selection committee. “Who would ever guess that the 4.0 transcript with several hundred hours of community service, a masterful year-long senior research project, collegiate courses and intense involvement in extracurricular activities such as student council would belong to a girl who has had to struggle every day simply to get to school on time?”

Indyasia is now a sophomore at Lee University, thinking about going into teaching. She “felt really blessed to receive the Beat the Odds award. It’s just an indescribable feeling to be celebrated in that way.”