Khadijah’s Journey: From Skid Row (Homeless Shelter) to Harvard University

For 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.”

Khadijah’s College Essay (That won her admission to Harvard University)

For years, Khadijah bounced from homeless shelter to homeless shelter. She went to 12 schools in 12 years, but she never stopped believing in herself or the importance of education. After graduating from high school, Khadijah was admitted to Harvard University. Read one of the inspiring essays that helped her land a college scholarship.

Other than through classes in school, in what areas (nonacademic or academic) have you acquired knowledge or skills? How?

I have not prepared for college or life in the traditional manner. For almost all of my life, I have never had a place to call home. I have questioned why I have to struggle so hard to succeed while others do not have to question whether they will go to college. However, there is one thing I have never questioned: my education. My life and circumstances have given me life skills, that in turn, have helped make me into the driven and passionate student I am today.

I have lived in many types of shelters and motels throughout my life, and as a result, I have learned to be flexible, independent, resourceful, and driven in achieving my goals. 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 that snorts, “You ain’t college bound. You live in Skid Row!” 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.

Interestingly enough, my difficult life encouraged my passion for learning. The refuge I sought when I was at my most depressed was school. School was free, it was amazing, and it stimulated the intellectually curious side of me. I began to love school. However, shelters were temporary, and as a result, the schools I went to were temporary as well. In kindergarten, I did not notice too much. I simply learned my ABCs and found happiness in school. However, by the time I reached elementary school, I figured out that my way of life had messed with the thing I loved the most. I could not let that happen. One moment in third grade defined my path today.
I am 9 years old and a few years behind in school. I am supposed to be in fourth grade, but moving around has left me behind. One day, my teacher comes up to me in the beginning of my third grade year and says, “Young lady, you have got to learn your times tables or you cannot pass on to fourth grade!” I am very upset. I cannot flunk third grade. So what do I do? I go to the library and check out 4th Grade Adventures, a computer game, and stay at the library every day after school. That year, I tested in the 97th percentile in math and 94th in English. My test scores placed me in the 99th percentile overall, and since then, I have been considered gifted. I cannot let homelessness stop me from learning. This attitude has followed me to today.

After this moment in third grade, I realized that if I wanted to continue learning, I would have to teach myself, make sure that I did not fall behind, and learn to adapt to the whims of wherever I would live. Therefore, this is what I did and have been doing for all of my life. After this experience, I skipped two more grades and I finally was in the 10th grade, my right grade, when I had another dilemma. I was 35 credits, a whole year behind in high school. I remembered how my mom and I researched food banks by asking other homeless people where to eat. Therefore, I knew that if I wanted to become a smart, successful scholar, I should talk to other smart people. I asked questions and learned that I could catch up credit wise by taking community college courses. When I signed up for my first set of classes, however, I had to move again. Thank goodness, I learned patience a long time ago.

This patience enabled me to find local community colleges in my new place of residence—Los Angeles. Then, I found Upward Bound. I lacked the requirements to join the program: two letters of recommendation, a middle school transcript, and a current school of attendance. I could not show Upward Bound my gaps in my education. I remembered a conversation I had with a pimp to get him to leave me alone, so I used the same logical frame of mind to explain to Upward Bound why I would be a great fit for the program. “Look, I moved around too much to have a transcript, but I skipped from 8th to 10th grade, and I have earned a 3.85 G.P.A.. I want to go to college, and I will take on any challenge to get there.” The pimp was driven away, and Upward Bound accepted my application.

As I fill out my college applications to Harvard, Williams and Amherst, my dream schools, I am thankful for what I have been through. Being homeless has given me the skills I need to succeed on the pathway towards my higher education pursuits and life-long goals. My experiences have made me a dedicated student both inside and outside of the classroom. I do not let anything stop me from achieving my goals. Hearing such negativity where I have lived has enabled me to focus on my goals and remain optimistic, even when faced with grave adversity. Having to depend on myself for food has enabled me to take charge of my education. I have learned to be resourceful and diligent and I am confident in saying that I am a very self-motivated and determined individual that will stop at nothing to receive an education. When I go to college, I know that this acquired knowledge and skills will enable me to succeed in whatever I do.

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In 2009, Oprah met Khadijah Williams, a driven young woman who grew up in homeless shelters but never stopped believing in herself and the power of education. Though she went to 12 different schools in 12 years, she managed to graduate high school with honors and was accepted into Harvard University. Four years later (2013), she graduated with a degree in sociology. In 2015, she is now a project manager at an education technology firm in New York City.