When social workers interviewed her, they were astonished she had never gone to school. Not a day.
Her test results were even more incredible. Although her math skills were those of fifth grader, she was reading, writing, and comprehending at a college level.
"My brother taught me to read," Dawn said Friday as she sat in a Starbucks and tried to write an acceptance speech for a ceremony in her honor Monday. If she was struggling, that was only because she had little time and a village to thank.
That list includes her older brother, who, before moving in with his father, took care of Dawn. As did the mother of her best friend from high school.
She'll thank her husband, Adrian, a vector control officer for the Health Department, and their three kids, with whom she shares a remarkably normal life.
"Without my husband's help, pursuing my degree wouldn't be possible," she said.
It's taken some time, but Dawn is a college student now, in her junior year at Temple. She studies part time because she's got a job as an administrative assistant at the Community College of Philadelphia.
At Temple, she's carrying a 3.8 grade-point average.
That means she's earned one B and the rest A's.
I asked how she educated herself, and she said her brother used to bring home his books from middle school and let her complete the work sheets. After he left, Dawn sought the company of a small library of books that belonged to her mother, who had attended college.
Dawn wrote poetry and essays, short stories, and opinion pieces. She drew sketches from photos she had clipped from the newspaper.
She's kept a lot of those words. I asked what they tell her now of that young, muted girl.
"I'd say the person who made them was very lonely and didn't have a very well-rounded perception of the world."
She recalls a poem she wrote about looking out the window and wondering what the neighborhood used to look like.
"What I saw in front of me were drug dealers on the corner and kids fighting. I didn't realize the world's really not that scary."
After her landlord's intervention, Dawn was placed in an emergency shelter for children, then a foster home with several other girls. That was a good situation. She hasn't seen her mother since she was 18.
Dawn went to the Philadelphia Regional High School, an alternative setting, taking courses in the morning and studying for her GED in the afternoon because she wasn't comfortable with other students.
Only in her mid-20s did she begin to feel at ease socially, she says.
By then she was living on her own, having worked in restaurants and clothing stores, exploring what she'd be best at.
She found her calling at the community college in the academic affairs office, where she helps students who show up a little lost. They benefit from someone who understands what that's like.
On Monday, Dawn will accept a $10,000 scholarship from GlaxoSmithKline, which will fund her next two semesters of studying elementary education.
The company is handing out a total of $55,000 to four Philadelphians who have overcome significant hurdles.
Mary Linda Andrews, who directs Glaxo's community partnerships, said the scholarship committee looks for people "who have figured out how to turn their adversity into a way of helping people."
That would be Dawn.
After graduation, she wants to open an after-school tutoring center. She talks of educating young children - and their parents. "Children need to realize the importance of applying their education to life at large," she said, "no matter how they come to it."
I asked her how she persevered - how she came out whole from such a start. She put it this way:
"All that time, I felt, 'If I can get through this, I can find a way out of the situation, it's going to get better. Everything will be completely up from here.' "
Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danielrubin.