Of all of the low moments she lived through, the most dispiriting might have been the time more than a decade ago when Latisha Wilson had to rescue her younger sister from their drug-addicted mother and a home that had degenerated into a crack house.
The best moment? That list keeps changing, but near the top would be the day last month when a giddy entourage of bigwigs at Manchester Community College walked into her state and local government class with news that literally sent Wilson to her knees:
She had been chosen to receive a scholarship worth up to $30,000 a year to complete her bachelor's degree at any college or university of her choice.
"I was speechless," said the normally loquacious Wilson, who on Wednesday learned she had been accepted at Amherst College, one of the top liberal arts schools in the country. "After all I've been through ..."
Wilson, who lives in Hartford, is among 38 students from throughout the country selected by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which offers money to support high-achieving students with financial need, according to Matthew Quinn, the foundation's executive director.
"We hope these scholarships will allow the students the opportunity to fulfill their educational goals and become the individuals they aspire to be," Quinn said.
Almost 700 students from more than 430 community or two-year colleges were nominated for the transfer scholarship, according to the foundation, which noted that 46 percent of all undergraduates in the country attend community colleges.
Wilson was the only winner from Connecticut, which has more than 45,000 full- and part-time community college students.
Prof. Robert Kagan, who has taught Wilson and helped her with her work as editor of the college newspaper, said the foundation made a wise choice.
"The amount of energy and drive she has is just staggering to me," Kagan said. "She's a perpetual motion machine, and she refuses to acknowledge that there may be limitations in the world."
Asked where he thinks Wilson will be in 10 years, Kagan laughed and said, "The president of something."
Such a notion might have seemed ludicrous when Wilson was born to a 16-year-old mother and a 15-year-old father and grew up in a project in East Baltimore.
She said it is painful to talk about her past, but she knows that sharing her story might help inspire children in similar straits.
Children like her whose parents never married. Children like her who have witnessed abuse and felt abandoned - and eventually were abandoned.
Wilson's mother, an alcoholic, had two other children by two other men and the family moved frequently. Wilson started working during her freshman year at a Virginia high school - she quit the cheerleading team and took a job at Burger King - then moved in with a neighbor two years later when her mother returned to Baltimore.
Wilson said she accrued some high school credits through a vocational technical program, where she learned to be a welder, but barely graduated.
"I was dealing with so many emotional and psychological issues," she said. "At some point, probably in elementary school, I knew I was a really bright student. But I bombed on my SATs, and I just didn't think college was in my future."
After witnessing first-hand the extent of her mother's drug problem, Wilson moved to Hartford to continue her search for stability and purpose. She said she was drawn to the area by the children of her father, whom she no longer sees.
During the past decade, she has worked as a manicurist, a hairdresser, a makeup artist at Westfarms mall and a customer service representative for a bank. Along the way, she had an epiphany.
"I felt like, I have a higher calling," she said. "I feel like I'm playing catch-up, but I realized I had to go to college."
Three years ago, she enrolled at Capital Community College and a year later transferred to Manchester. A communications major, she has immersed herself in college life and reaped dividends. She was selected for a summer enrichment program at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. She has interned for both Fox 61 and a state legislator and has been inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, the oldest and largest honor society serving two-year colleges.
"She deserves everything she's gotten," said Keith Rugar, the assistant editor of the student newspaper. "Her degree of professionalism was definitely eye-opening."
Angelo Messore, an economics and political science professor, cited Wilson's background and work ethic as reasons he nominated her for the scholarship.
Messore noted that Cooke also overcame hardships, dropping out of high school during the Depression but achieving fortune as a media mogul and fame as owner of the Washington Redskins football team and Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.
Wilson plans to study political science next year, although she said she still has a passion for journalism.
"I really want to tell stories that help masses of people," she said, adding that her mother is now drug-free and that their relationship is improving. She also said that she has been blessed with role models and mentors who surfaced when she needed them most.
"Mrs. Johnson, one of my middle school teachers, would always say to me, `Baby, you could be the next Oprah,'" Wilson said. "I think that thought was buried for a long time but is beginning to resurface."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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