Claiming destiny on skid row, gifted scholar finds home at Harvard

Young, Gifted & Black Series

By Taki S. Raton

Khadijah Williams

During the NAACP’s 100th Anniversary Convention as described in her Vanity Fair writing, Saul Loeb shares that keynote speaker President Barack Obama urged Black Americans, in her words, would “have to seize their own fate each and every day.” According to this July 17 article, Obama stated that “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that.”

Our President’s words would truly resignate with the life challenges of one particular 18 year-old sitting amongst a packed house this July 16, 2009 evening at the Hilton Hotel ballroom. She is young, gifted, and Black. With makeup and hair styled by celebrity stylist Brian Magallones and Nick Barose and fashionably adorned in a New York Keith Lissner designer dress, Khadijah Williams is an exemplar model of seizing fate and claiming destiny.

Columnist Jerry K. Remmers in his June 20, 2009 internet column “The ModerateVoice” headlines that the Williams’ story “Reduced Me to Tears;” a heartwarming account of a homeless girl overcoming and standing up to incredible odds over the majority of her young life.

As long as she can remember, Khadijah has been homeless. She has drifted from shelter to motels to armories along with her mother Chantwuan Williams and her little sister Jeanine. She has attended 12 schools in 12 years; lived out of garbage bags among pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers.

Every morning, as noted in Remmers, Khadijah upheld her dignity and made sure she didn’t smell or look disheveled. On the streets, she learned how to hunt for their next meal, plot the next bus route and help secure a place for her mother and sister to sleep; a tough and dismal road for a young West Coast homeless Black girl who would end up earning a full scholarship to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It would be in the third grade when she realized her intellectual gift and the significance of test scores, placing in the 99th percentile on a state exam. Her teachers identified the then 9 year-old as gifted, a classification that Khadijah vowed to keep.

“I still remember that exact number,” as quoted in Remmers. “It meant that only 0.01 students tested better than I did.”

Published accounts reveal, however, that over subsequent years, her mother pulled her out of school eight more times. When shelters closed, money ran out, or her mother did not feel safe, they packed what little they could carry and boarded buses to find housing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Ventura, San Diego, San Bernardino and Orange County, staying only months at most in one place.

But at every stop, Khadijah pushed herself towards and beyond her perceived limitations in each school’s gifted program. She read newspapers and four to five books a month, studied nutrition charts, “all and anything,” as cited in Remmers “to transport her mind away from the chaos and the sour smell.”

At school, she was considered an outsider. In the shelter, the pimps scorned her saying, “You ain’t college bound, you live in skid row.”

She finished only half of fourth grade, half of fifth and skipped sixth. Seventh grade was split between Los Angeles and San Diego. Eighth grade consisted of two weeks in San Bernardino.

“I have felt the anger of having to catch up in school, being bullied because they knew I was poor, different, and read too much,” as recorded in one of her college essays. “I knew that if I wanted to become a smart, successful scholar, I should talk to other smart people.”

In the tenth grade, Khadijah would then realize that if she wanted to succeed, she could not do it alone. She began to reach out to such organizations and mentors as the Upward Bound Program, Higher Edge L.A., Experience Berkeley and South Central Scholars. She received guidance through teachers, counselors, and college alumni channels. As a result of such assistance, the high school sophomore was able to enroll in a summer community college class, was given access to computers, surveyed college application guidelines and refined her networking skills.

During her junior year, she enrolled at Jefferson High School in Orange County, Los Angeles. She was determined to stay put, no matter the circumstances or regardless of where her mother may move. The eleventh grader knew that graduation was around the corner and she needed strong letters of recommendations from teachers who knew her and were familiar with her scholastic levels.

This commitment entailed commuting by bus from an Orange County armory. She would have to wake up at 4 a.m. and return to her shelter by 11 p.m. at night. This junior scholar kept her grade-point average at just below a 4.0 while participating after a long day of classes in the Academic Decathlon, the debate team and leading the school’s track and field team.

When her college applications were due in December, James and Patricia London of South Central Scholars invited Khadijah to their home in Rancho Palos Verdes to help her write her essays. When they returned her to skid row, her mother and sister were gone.

In their comfortable Rancho hilltop home, Khadijah accepted their gracious invitation to spend the rest of her school term with them.

The orthopedic doctor and his wife who was a nurse taught her a new set of lessons that included table manners, money management and grooming.

On Friday, June 19, 2009, Khadijah graduated fourth in her class. She was accepted to more than 20 universities nationwide to include Brown, Columbia , Amherst and Williams. She chose a full scholarship to Harvard and envisions becoming an education attorney.

Harvard interviewer Julie Hilden who met with Khadijah to review her candidacy for admittance said that “I strongly recommend her.” She shared with the acceptance committee that, “If you don’t take her, you might be missing out on the next Michelle Obama. Don’t make this mistake.”

Through a program titled Education and Social Change, the summer of 2012 provided the opportunity for Khadijah to spend seven weeks in South Africa :

“First, I spent one month in a city in Umlazi,” she records in an August 7, 2012 Center for Opportunity College (COC) blog. I had a mama, baba, sissi, and broet. Umlazi is a Black and Indian middle class town in Durban, South Africa. My sissi took me to a South African club! The music is different but not really from what we listen to in the states. Kind of techno. And people actually danced in this club.”

Her memoirs reveal that what she learned in South Africa “is something I can’t learn in a book.” She adds that the experience of studying abroad gives her another perspective. “I was able to talk to people who lived through apartheid. How amazing is that!”

In her September 17, 2012 COC blog, she writes: Hey everyone! I’m a senior now.

Last year, final homestretch, reaching the finish line, becoming an adult. But before I leave, I’m going to make my mark on the world. I’m going to have my views on the world be made permanent, for other professors, scholars, and students to see.” Her vision is to take all that she knows about a particular topic and “turn it into something no one has ever done before.”

Three years prior when Khadijah’s story first hit the press towards the end of June, she became an instant media idol. She appeared on Oprah and it was additionally around this time that she received a personal invitation from NAACP Chairman Julian Bond to be his guest of honor at the 100th Anniversary Convention. Vanity Fair covered her trip to the NAACP Centennial.

She was attending Cornell that summer in Ithaca, New York taking college-preparatory classes in readiness for Harvard. But according to Loeb, upon her arrival in Manhattan for the event, “this girl literally had nothing to wear.” It would be in response to a flurry of e-mails through New York ’s style industry corridors that Magallones, Barose and Lissner stepped in to provide the needed fashion assistance for this beautiful young woman.

In the 2009 Oprah interview, Khadijah expressed that she lived in many types of shelters and motels throughout her life and as a result, has learned to be flexible, independent, resourceful, and driven in achieving her goals. She said: “Whenever I am hungry, I know where to find food. Whenever I am depressed and stressed, I know exactly where to go to calm down. I tune out the prostitutes who try to sway me towards their way of thinking and ignore the drug addict’s plea to try just one drug. I have learned how to tune out the patronizing pimp.

I have learned not to show fear when I am walking home late at night, and I have learned how to remain alive with almost no money. By moving around and experiencing so much, I have learned to adapt to many different situations, go after and accomplish my goals, and most importantly, thrive.”

She adds that her life and circumstance “have given me life skills that in turn have helped make me into the driven and passionate student I am today.”

And what about her mother and younger sister? In the 2009 Remmers’ article, the last published contact noted was in June just prior to her graduation. She saw her mother only a few times and made attempts to try and find her. Remmers writes that Khadijah headed to a South-Central storage facility where they last stored their belongings. She found Chantwuan sitting on a garbage bag full of clothes.

“Khadijah’s here!” her sister Jeanine yells out. Her mother’s face lit up.

The June senior in Remmers explained the details of her graduation, the bus route to get there and showed her mother a prom picture in her silky black and white dress, posing alone. She modeled her hunter green graduation cap and gown that she would wear at the ceremony. There was no talk of coming home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

“Look at you,” her mother says. “You’re really going to Harvard, huh?”

“Yeah, Ma,” she says, pausing. “I’m going to Harvard.”