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A Campion girl's bumpy ride to Howard University

Tahirah Williams ploughs through poverty, personal challenges to land scholarship

By KIMONE FRANCIS Sunday Observer staff reporter francisk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 08, 2014    

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WHEN it was announced that Campion College student Tahirah Williams had been accepted by Howard University in Washington, DC, USA on scholarship, not many knew the trials and despair that had dominated her life up to that point.

For some it wasn't surprising — the norm for a Campionite — but the heights that the 19-year-old attained and kept were not by sudden flight, but by sleepless nights burning the midnight oil.

Born and raised in the hills of Gordon Town, St Andrew, life was not the best for Williams, more like "fun and simple"... and challenging.

Her struggles started at McLeod Basic School, and continued through St Martin De Porres and Grove Primary, where she was placed on the Government's Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) subsistence programme.

She knew little about Campion College, and yearned to attend Glenmuir High because she had family members living in Clarendon. However, upon hearing others say that Campion provided possibly the best form of academic training, she changed her mind. And so when she sat the Grade Six Achievement Test, she simply wrote down Campion at the top of her list, which included St Andrew High, Wolmer's Girls, and Immaculate Conception.

Months later, having found out that she was awarded a place at Campion, new worries came. How could she afford to take up that offer with her father, the sole breadwinner of the family, having been laid off from his inspector duties with the Jamaica Urban Transit Company?

She was urged to seek a transfer to a less financially demanding school, and was even offered a scholarship to attend The Queen's School, but she was adamant that she would attend Campion.

She had the support of her mother, whom she said would always remind her of how great God is and how faith could open doors.

"My mother believes in God, she has so much faith, she would always tell me, 'God will not let you start something and leave you alone', and so I kept that belief," she told the Jamaica Observer.

In August of that same year (2007) Williams' mother received a call from her grade six teacher who informed her that a woman from the United Kingdom wanted to assist a student in need and that she had suggested her. The woman, a good Samaritan, had no prior ties with the school and had merely called wanting to help someone in need.

Williams is still being assisted by this nameless Samaritan whose only demand for continued assistance was that she did her best.

"It really affected me a lot because I didn't like myself. From first form into second form I asked myself several questions, like, 'Why aren't you smart enough'? and 'Why are you so black'?

The school administration didn't make her feel bad, but a small group of students did ... allowing her to feel inferior and causing her to hate herself for feeling the way that she did because she validated the opinion of her detractors.

Nearing the end of second form, she decided that she wasn't going to allow anyone to bully her anymore. She didn't want to feel the way that she did about herself and that was when high school got better for her.

While not having a computer or modern gadgets to distract her, Williams coped by playing sports, using it as an escape route. In third form she recalled life becoming a little easier at Campion, though she added football and basketball to her extra-curricular activities.

When travelling to and from school she had to journey down a hill, cross a river and then travel up another hill. She recalled whenever it rained access to her house was impossible as the river that she had to cross proved impassable. She had to travel a different route which took her around yet another hill. She did that every day.

In fifth form, life became increasingly difficult for Tahirah, as her sister, who had tried her hardest to care for her and her nieces while working a minimum wage salary, became seriously ill. She explained that in the initial stages no one knew the disease which threatened to take her sister away from her, as doctors were unable to make a diagnosis. As the months progressed her sister's condition got worse, her face had swollen beyond recognition. Rehashing such a painful memory, a sobbing Tahirah, with the agony of helplessness painted across her face, told the Sunday Observer the heartrending ordeal of how her sister's health deteriorated while she portrayed a façade of strength for her nieces, hiding her despair.

"It was difficult because I couldn't help her, I didn't want to think that she might die, the way she looked, she had to stay in bed for most of the time.

"It was difficult to go home and study and to prepare for exams knowing that my sister was ill," she said.

Williams recalled waking up one morning and not being able to find her sister. Upon searching, she found her collapsed on the floor.

"She was out cold and wasn't responding to anything," Tahirah stated, relating that she panicked, but didn't cry, not because she didn't feel overwhelmed or didn't want to, but because she felt the need to be brave for her nieces ... she had to be strong for them.

Unable to keep it together in her interview with the Sunday Observer, she broke down again as she remembered the difficulties her family went through getting her sister to a hospital.

"Because we lived on a hill, daddy had to take her by foot down the hill across the river and up another hill again. When we got to the hospital they were able to diagnose her and that's when we found out it was Lupus," Tahirah said, tears again streaming down her face.

Her sister was bed-ridden for approximately six months and comatose for a day, and although she was fearful for her sister's future, she relied on the faith she had in God, remembering words her parents had spoken to her.

"When she was in the hospital I prayed, I asked God to allow her to come back to us, but I would pray mostly for strength because I know God is in control of everything and if it is His will that she goes, then I accept that, but she came back to us."

Despite having to deal with trials in what is deemed a crucial year in high school — fifth form — Williams managed to obtain nine CSEC subjects, gaining seven distinctions and two credits. At the CAPE unit one level in lower sixth form — which she said was a "step up" from CSEC in terms of the amount of work she had to put in to achieve her desired passes while still training for three sport — she yet again triumphed. She obtained all five subjects she attempted in CAPE, gaining four distinctions and a credit. She said that she was never intimidated, knowing what she had to do, she just did it despite the concerns that family members and friends had.

In addition to academics and sport, Tahirah also worked as a volunteer.

"The type of person I am, I don't like to be one-dimensional, saying that I'm only academically inclined. I like to branch myself. I try to participate in sports, in outreach programmes while balancing academically," she disclosed.

Tahirah believes that everything you are faced with prepares you for the future and as such balancing all that she does is in preparation for future encounters and endeavours.

While looking to bring the curtain down on her high school years, Tahirah was yet again burdened with thoughts of her future goals and the limited resources she had to fulfil them. She remembers discussing with friends a career in medicine but was brought back to reality by the noose of poverty hanging around her neck. She then thought of foregoing a year of her university life to work and save towards paying for school, despite not knowing if she would be able to secure a job, given the state of the country's economy.

It was after thinking long and hard that she remembered that during orientation heading into sixth form she learned about AIM Educational Service, an agency that provides college and graduate school placement services as well as Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) preparations, the later, a criterion for attending university in the United States. It was then and there Tahirah thought about furthering her studies overseas, hoping to do the SAT preparation course they offered, with the intention of sitting the SATs and possibly securing a scholarship.

The trouble, however, was again the inability of her parents and sister to cover the costs of a programme that would help her obtain a higher education — she had to pay US$600. Nothing short of a miracle, Tahirah remembers her mother getting a random telephone call from a family friend who wanted confirmation on whether or not she was sitting the SATs, without prior knowledge of Tahirah's interest. Her mother confirmed that she in fact wanted to sit the SAT, but did not have the US$600 to pay. The friend then told her mother that she would pay it.

Awe-stricken and beaming with excitement of how blessed she was, Tahirah explained her preparations for the SATs which led to her scoring an impressive 1,970 on the SAT I Reasoning Test, while recording a 750 on SAT II biology and 650 on SAT II math level I. Having achieved such tremendous results, she applied to several universities in the US and although some rejected her, she was offered half scholarships to several, excluding the one she desired most — Howard.

"I wanted to go to Howard so bad because of its history. I think I would feel comfortable in an environment where the likelihood of me finding someone who could understand my culture was a lot higher, because it had predominantly black people, historically," she said of the institution which prominent Jamaicans including health minister Dr Fenton Ferguson, and top notch lawyer KD Knight attended.

And so Tahirah refused all, insisting that the scholarship had to be a full one because she did not want to burden her family with the task of finding the difference that she would need to complete university.

"If I could not get the money without having to put my parents or family in debt, I just would not go to school the following year" she said.

Shortly after, she received an e-mail from Howard University, seemingly decades after offers from others. She explained to the Sunday Observer how she quickly appealed to the university for a scholarship. Having learned of all she had achieved under the circumstances she did, she was offered the Cap Stone Scholarship, which covered boarding, tuition and fees. She later found out that it amounted to US$31,000 - US$5000 short of what she would need to fully cover her expenses.

Without feeling defeated, she applied for a sport scholarship, in addition to the merit-based scholarship that she had been given. She received assistance from AIM, who lobbied on her behalf, and she was given a US$8,000 university grant.

And so come September, Tahirah will begin her journey to greatness at Howard University where she intends to read for a degree in Biology. She hopes to, in the future, give back to people with similar experiences ... living out one of her passions which is to help those in need and to establish a scholarship in her name, assisting those of similar fate.

Her greatest satisfaction is seeing how proud she has made her family.

"Seeing the pride in mommy's and daddy's eyes felt good", she said.

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