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She finally has a home: Harvard

Khadijah Williams, 18, overcomes a lifetime in shelters and on skid

June 20, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

"I don't know. I don't know," is often her response. Ask personal questions about her mother and the fire in Khadijah's eyes turns dim. She knows when she arrives in Cambridge, Mass., she will need to seek counseling. So much of her life is a blur.

She knows she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a 14-year-old mother. She thinks Chantwuan might have been ostracized from her family. She may have tried to attend school, but the stress of a baby proved too much. When Khadijah was a toddler, they moved to California. A few years later, Jeanine was born.

She has chosen not to criticize her mother. Instead Khadijah said she inspired her to learn. "She would tell me I had a gift, she would call me Oprah."

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 went to return her to skid row, her mother and sister were gone.

Khadijah accepted the Londons' invitation to spend the rest of her school year with them.

In their comfortable hilltop home, Khadijah learned a new set of lessons. The orthopedic doctor and nurse taught her table manners, money management and grooming.

She won't be the first homeless student to arrive at Harvard.

Julie Hilden, the Harvard interviewer who met with Khadijah to gauge whether she should be accepted, said it was clear from the start that Khadijah was a top candidate. But school officials had to make sure they could provide what she needed to make the transition successful.

They plan to connect her with faculty mentors and potentially, a host family to check in with every so often. She will also attend a Harvard summer program at Cornell to take college-prep courses.

"I strongly recommended her," Hilden said. "I told them, 'If you don't take her, you might be missing out on the next Michelle Obama. Don't make this mistake.' "

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Seeking connections

"I think about how I can convince my peers about the value of education. . . . I have found that after all the teasing, these peers start to respect me . . . . I decided that I could be the one to uplift my peers . . . . My work is far reaching and never finished."

Khadijah expected to feel more connected after nearly two years at Jefferson, to make at least one good friend.

Students flock to the smart girl for help with homework and tests and class questions. She walks through campus tenderly waving and smiling and complimenting everyone she knows.

But when prom pictures arrive, they show her posing alone in a silky black and white dress. In her yearbook, hundreds of familiar faces look back, but the memories are missing.

"It's a nice, glossy, shiny, colorful yearbook," she said. "But it feels like they're all strangers. I'm nowhere in these pages."

In the last six months, she saw her mother only a few times and on Thursday tried to find her. 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. Chantwuan's face lit up.

She explained the details of her graduation, the bus route to get there and gave her mother a prom picture. She said she would leave for summer school Friday.

There is no talk of coming home of for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Proudly, Khadijah modeled her hunter green graduation cap and gown and practiced switching the tassel from right to left as she would during the ceremony.

"Look at you," her mother says. "You're really going to Harvard, huh?"

"Yeah," she says, pausing. "I'm going to Harvard."

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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