Patricia Melton is no stranger to adversity. But she learned how to deal with it. Now the New Haven Promise executive director sets an example for others that no matter what personal challenges you may face, success is always within reach.
Growing up in Cleveland as one of seven kids in a single-parent family that relied on public assistance, Melton’s childhood was challenging by anyone’s standards. Her father was largely absent, and early on, she knew that school offered the best chance for her to grow and succeed.
“I loved school because it gave me tons of positive reinforcement and freedom to explore, and I was able to access resources that weren’t otherwise available because of our limited income,” she said.
When Melton was 12 years old, her mother was seriously injured in a car accident and died several months later from head injuries she had sustained. Life was uncertain for Melton and her siblings, but one thing remained clear: Her mother’s insistence on the value of education.
“My mother was resolute that we all should graduate from high school, something she had never achieved,” Melton said. “She made sure we went to school and was adamant that we do well and put our best foot forward. When my mother died, I became very focused on education and knew that it would be a ticket to somewhere.”
Living with an older sister in the projects and determined to expand her horizons, Melton secured A Better Chance scholarship to attend Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, where she thrived academically and socially. She also discovered a surprising love for lacrosse.
“I played center mostly; the speed of the game appealed to me,” Melton remembered. “I was a very shy kid in a new element, and sports opened doors to new friends and a new world.”
Yale University took notice of Melton’s talents, recruiting her for field hockey and lacrosse. But she later transitioned into track and field under the direction of Yale head coach, Lee Calhoun, a former Olympic hurdler. Again, Melton faced challenges, both personally and financially. Paying for college wasn’t easy.
“I was always on bursar hold because I had to live on the little money I made through odd jobs here and there,” she recalled.
Melton took 1 ½ years off after her freshman year to work as a clerk for Standard Oil. As she was preparing to return to Yale, her brother was killed by gunfire. She questioned her decision to go back to school but dug deep and decided to stick with it.
“I thought I couldn’t do sports anymore,” she said. “Fortunately, I had a very understanding coach who was patient and didn’t pressure me. Track helped me to heal from the grief of losing my brother. It was very therapeutic.”
During her time away from school, Melton also joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
“In my low-income neighborhood, going to the military was a positive thing,” she recalled. “I was looking for affiliation; I didn’t feel like I belonged to any one place. I thought the military would give me an extra dose of stability and make me stronger for whatever I would face.”
Back in school with newfound resolve from her Marine Corps experience, Melton once again found a way to thrive, graduating from Yale in December 1982 with a degree in African-American studies. She also earned six individual Ivy League track and field championships, two Most Outstanding Athlete titles and a national second place in hurdles through the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
By the time Melton graduated from college, her running times had improved to the point that she was nationally ranked in the 400 hurdles and was able to make it to the 1988 Olympic Trials finals in the 800 meters. As her amateur running career wound down, Melton joined the Seattle Organizing Committee for the Goodwill Games as the assistant vice president of sports. She also helped create the African-American Academy in Seattle before moving on to become assistant dean of instruction at Vincennes University in Indiana and the director of XMester, an early college summer residential experience for rising high school seniors.
Positions with the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, several Ohio high schools and the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in Indiana followed before Melton landed at New Haven Promise in 2012 as executive director. Created by the city of New Haven in Connecticut, Yale University and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, New Haven Promise provides deserving students with college scholarship benefits, internships and leadership development.
“In my journey, I experienced every obstacle imaginable,” Melton said. “I take that experience and use it to make a difference for the kids and young people I work with now. It’s incredibly rewarding, and there is a huge need. There’s no better way to impact lives than through education and career achievement.”
Regardless of challenges, Melton encourages student-athletes to find their own ways to make a difference and, most of all, not give up.
“Persistence pays off,” she said. “Even when it seems like there’s no way, there is a way. Show up and persevere. Success will find you.”
Melton was a 2007 NCAA Silver Anniversary Award Winner, which recognized her for being a distinguished former student-athlete on the 25th anniversary of the end of her intercollegiate eligibility.