Growing up in Cleveland housing projects and living off welfare checks, Patricia Melton ’82 had to beat the odds to earn a degree from Yale. Now, as the new executive director for New Haven Promise, she aims to help high school students in New Haven’s public schools overcome barriers to college.

Melton, now 53, was appointed to lead New Haven Promise, a Yale-funded college scholarship program, on June 25, following a nationwide search for the position, and she officially assumed the role on Aug. 15. Promise awards college tuition scholarships to high-achieving public high school students who matriculate to in-state universities.

In her childhood home, Melton was the sixth of seven children. Her father, a writer who found himself in and out of prison during Melton’s childhood, was largely absent from the household. Her mother, who dropped out of high school to start a family, was “very proud and determined that her children would do better,” Melton said.

“My mother was not successful in achieving her dreams, but was fierce in instilling in her children to do better than she did. And my father was brilliant but squandered his talents away,” Melton said. “Education thus became a defining element in my life.”

Growing up in a conservative religious environment, Melton used school “as an outlet to spread [her] wings beyond a sheltered family life.” Then in 1971, when she was just 12 years old, her mother suffered a fatal car accident. With her dad out of the picture, the orphaned Melton was left in the care of her older sister. Constantly relocating, Melton attended eight different schools between kindergarten and 8th grade.

“Patricia is a true success story in terms of making opportunities for herself as a child where she didn’t have opportunities,” said David Dresslar, the executive director of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, where Melton used to work.

Despite Melton’s tumultuous home life, the lesson her parents taught her — that education was something to be “admired and respected” — was a steady source of motivation.

“I thought about running away, but after watching other siblings hit the streets to not-great fates, I decided I wanted to use my brains to have a better life,” Melton said. “Education was where I was able to find myself. It provided a lot of stability in my life, at a time when my life was very unstable.”

Melton flourished in elementary and middle school — earning straight A’s and placing into high-level courses. After her freshman year of high school, she won a scholarship from A Better Chance, an organization that pays for talented students of color to attend private schools. Melton attended the Middlesex School, a boarding school in Concord, Mass. At Middlesex, she picked up field hockey and lacrosse and was recruited in 1977 to play at Yale.

Melton found her first year at Yale to be “quite challenging,” often struggling to balance her course load while playing varsity field hockey. Melton worked throughout her Yale career to pay her financial aid contributions toward tuition. After graduating in the fall of 1982 with a degree in African American Studies, she began a career in education administration.

“I love being able to give back and help young folks achieve their dreams, and education is really the foundation of that,” Melton said. “I’ve found my experience has helped me have a fulfilling career and impact a lot of young people.”

After working at several nonprofits and schools, Melton served as the chief academic officer for Indiana’s third-largest school district and most recently as an assistant dean at Vincennes University.

Throughout her career, Melton has accumulated years of experience working in both high school and college environments, giving her “an ideal background for Promise,” said William Ginsberg, CEO of the Community Foundation, which administers Promise. Melton worked under Dresslar at the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning to launch a program through which students could earn college credit while still in high school.

“She was a real asset to us and an instrumental part of our launch of the early college model,” Dresslar said. “She brought a passion born from her personal experience.”

Melton is currently gearing up to lead Promise through its third application cycle.