Those experiences will guide her when she begins a five-year fellowship at the University of Michigan she hopes will end with a doctorate in political science and public policy. The goal: to become an expert on social welfare policy.
Barnes' childhood began in a house in Elizabeth City, N.C. Her father suffered from a mental illness and abused drugs, leaving her mother, Clarine, to care for Carolyn, her twin Connie, and an older sister also named Clarine. The situation grew worse when the family moved to Virginia Beach, where Barnes' mother sold insurance. After a few years they lost their apartment.
"For the most part we stayed in one-room motels - very cheap, inexpensive motels," Barnes said.
School was one of the few constants, and Carolyn, particularly, found solace in studies.
"I really used school as kind of like my escape," she said. "I could do as well as I wanted to do. I had control over the situation."
Taunts hurled at her by classmates only motivated her to excel. She earned a full scholarship to Virginia Tech, where she got a degree in three years and graduated in May as the top student in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. She is just 20.
Barnes said she went to college with dreams of being a corporate lawyer, but her goals changed after her freshman year when she was confronted with a deteriorating family situation.
Her father had died right before her graduation from First Colonial High School, and her mother sank into a depression that made her unable to hold a steady job. By the time Carolyn returned from her first year at college, her mother and Clarine were living in a homeless shelter.
Carolyn spent part of that summer with relatives in the Washington, D.C., area, where she worked at a drug rehabilitation center. The male patients reminded her of her father, and it was there that she came to terms with his death.
"Despite their issues with drug abuse and broken homes and poverty similar to my father's case, they still had goals," she said. "But they needed someone to believe in them, and they needed someone to treat them like they're human beings."
Back at school, Carolyn Barnes met Nikol Alexander-Floyd, a political scientist who saw the value of her background.
"I said you know, this is something you could study," said Alexander-Floyd, now an assistant professor at Rutgers University. "Once she got hold of this different option, she ran all the way with it."
Carolyn's mother and older sister spent two years shuffling between shelters in New York and Nashville, Tenn., and Carolyn said at times she thought about dropping out of school so she could help.
Big sister set her straight. "You could have either stayed in school or you could have been with us in the shelter," Clarine told her.
Today, Carolyn recognizes the value of her education. "I think overall it benefits me and my family more than if I had left."
Her mother and Clarine now live in a motel in Nashville. Connie, who is married and has a child, is studying accounting at Old Dominion University.
And Carolyn Barnes is looking forward to a career of teaching and doing research. She hopes to design public and private programs to empower the poor.