Homeless Student Graduates Top of His Class in New Orleans: 'Keep Pushing Forward,' He Says

"Just don't let it hold you back or put you down," Elijah Hogan, 19, tells PEOPLE

<p>Collegiate Academies</p> Elijah Hogan (right), Walter L. Cohen High School

Collegiate Academies

Elijah Hogan (right), Walter L. Cohen High School's 2024 valedictorian
  • Elijah Hogan lived at Covenant House, a homeless shelter, while attending Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans

  • Graduating with a 3.89 grade point average, he will attend Xavier University on a scholarship in the fall

  • “You are the bulldozer that could break your limitations," he tells PEOPLE

Elijah Hogan, 19, would have never imagined that he would graduate high school — let alone become class valedictorian.

But as the thoughtful and soft-spoken teen quips to PEOPLE on Friday, May 31, exactly one week after he graduated from Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans: “I outplayed myself, I would have to say."

Hogan has overachieved in more ways than one during his young life: For more than a year, he lived at Covenant House, a local homeless shelter, while attending high school. During his time at Walter L. Cohen, he maintained a 3.89 grade point average.

"Above all the trials, tests and hardships, what led us here is that we all set a goal to reach,” he said in remarks at his graduation ceremony on May 24.

“Each individual on this stage has proven themselves to be able to move into the next stage of evolution. Take pride in how far you have come," he said then. "Have faith in how far you can go. But don’t forget to enjoy your journey.”

Related: High School Student with Disability Felt 'Robbed' After Having to Sit in Audience for Graduation

Recalling the ceremony at Cohen a week later, Hogan (whose story has also attracted local attention) says that the experience was a lot to take in but he didn’t stress himself over it.

“It was more a relaxed moment for me to see all the people there," he says. "It was a memorable occasion that occurred.”

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Hogan was born in New Orleans and divided his time between growing up in that city and Houston; he has three siblings.

He first heard about Covenant House through his grandmother, a retired social worker, as his housing situation became more unstable.

Related: Twin Brothers, First in Their Family to Go to College, Named High School Valedictorian and Salutatorian

“Her lease form for the house that we all used to live in started to expire,” Hogan explains, “and we only had 30 days until we had to move out. So I took it upon myself to live independently. She gave me some info about Covenant House and told me to continue on with my education.”

Hogan credited Covenant for being extremely supportive as he was attending class. “Without them, I wouldn't have been able to finish my high school years,” he says about the shelter “giving me a place to stay, a place to eat, a place to sleep. I wouldn't have been able to be where I'm at now.”

<p>Collegiate Academies</p> Elijah Cohen

Collegiate Academies

Elijah Cohen

It wasn’t an easy journey for him between living at the shelter and going to classes, however. “The hardest challenge I had was fitting in and around other people, trusting others," he says. "[I was] keeping to myself, not really sharing my experience with others at Covenant House and Cohen.”

At the same, it was the people from the shelter and the high school whose faith and support in Hogan led him to open up and start "to trust them bit by bit to the point where I could fully trust them with my needs and being able to pass all my grades and graduate from high school.”

Related: Identical Twins – with Matching 4.0 GPAs – Graduate College as Co-Valedictorians: 'It Meant So Much'

Jarkayla Cobb, Hogan’s case manager, remembers him as introspective upon their first meeting. “I thought he was a genius,” she tells PEOPLE. “He did not say too many words the first time he came into my office. But just looking at him and hearing him speak, I'm like, ‘This is a brainiac.’ “

Cobb was present — proudly — at Hogan’s graduation ceremony at Cohen High.

“I was front row and center,” she says. “He was the first person to walk out and I was the first person to yell his name before every other parent started yelling their kids' names. To see him and be here to experience him experiencing joy — I couldn't ask for anything more, to be honest with you.”

<p>Collegiate Academies</p> Walter L. Cohen High School valedictorian Elijah Cohen on May 24, 2024

Collegiate Academies

Walter L. Cohen High School valedictorian Elijah Cohen on May 24, 2024

Hogan will attend Xavier University in the fall on a full-ride scholarship majoring in graphic design. He wants to publish his first comic book when he graduates from college.

”It's been like a childhood dream,” he says. “I envision myself creating comics, spreading it around and seeing the joy in people's faces.”

As for what advice he would give to others who faced similar challenges and situations as he previously did, the valedictorian says: “You are the bulldozer that could break your limitations. That's my advice. Just don't let it hold you back or put you down. Keep pushing forward without any doubts in mind."

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