From Homeless To Harvard (And Beyond): Khadijah Williams


20090915-tows-khadijah-290x218For more than 100 years, Los Angeles’ Union Rescue Mission has been a refuge for homeless families. At night, women and children fill the bunk beds on the shelter’s fourth floor, a safe place for those who don’t have a home of their own.

Khadijah, a young woman from California, spent many nights doing her homework in one of these beds. She wrote English essays, practiced math problems and studied for exams until the lights went out at 10 p.m.

Khadijah began moving from shelter to shelter with her mother and younger sister when she was 6 years old. When there were no shelters available, Khadijah says she and her family slept in bus stations or on the street.

Despite their circumstances, Khadijah says her mother always held her and her sister to a higher standard. “No matter where we lived, no matter how bad our circumstances may have been, my mom was always positive,” she says.

In 12 years, Khadijah attended 12 different schools, but she kept up with her peers by spending day after day at the Los Angeles Public Library. “It changed my life,” she says. “The library gave me some control over some aspect of my life. Even though I couldn’t really control where I would live or anything, I could control how much I wanted to learn.”

During Khadijah’s sophomore year in high school, she decided to do whatever it took to stay in one place. From that point on, she woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to catch a bus from Los Angeles’ Skid Row to Jefferson High, which was two hours away. “Who wouldn’t want to escape that kind of life in Skid Row or in the shelters to come to this?” she says. “That’s what I focused on.”

Khadijah never stopped believing education was her ticket to happiness. Last May, she graduated from Jefferson High with honors. She’s now a freshman at the prestigious Harvard University.

Far from the pimps and prostitutes of Skid Row, Khadijah is embracing her new community, Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s just so different from what I’m used to. [In] Skid Row, you kind of feel stuck because everything’s just so squished together,” she says. “Here, everything’s so open. The air is so fresh and clean and clear.”

If other children growing up in shelters knew what was out there and what was possible, Khadijah says their perspective would change.

“To any person, homeless or otherwise, who feels like they don’t like the situation they’re in and feels like they can’t do anything about it, they can,” she says. “For a while, that’s all I had—the belief that I could do it. All you need is that belief because you can. I did it.”

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