RANDALLSTOWN, Md. – Just days before she was to receive her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University, a woman raised in West Baltimore’s roughest neighborhoods was asked to a meeting of the school’s Board of Trustees. In a surprise announcement, the university’s president offered her a job.
Corshai Williams, 22, doesn’t yet have a doctorate. But the university’s president, Hakim J. Lucas, said he wants to hire more black women scientists like Williams, so he took the unusual step of asking her to come back as an assistant professor of chemistry when she finishes her doctorate.
“It was very humbling,” she said.
Williams will take her next step in the fall, when she begins graduate studies in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Like so many other children who grow up in areas of intense poverty and crime, Williams spent most of her life in a struggle to survive. She left her mother’s house at age 12 because she often was forced to miss school to care for younger siblings, moving in with a favorite aunt. She found part-time work to help pay the rent.
With the help of her teachers and guidance counselor at Booker T. Washington Middle School, she applied to and got into Western High School, one of the city’s top schools.
But when she got there she realized how difficult it would be to navigate the expectations of high school. She felt she was going to drown.
So she started turning up at her former middle school, asking the office staff whether they could help her find her old counselor, Anna Smith, who’d moved to another school. Williams believed Smith would be the influence she needed, delivering both tough love when she felt like giving up and gentleness when things were crumbling.
“I picked her up and we talked in the car for two hours,” said Smith, who agreed to help.
Williams did the best she could in high school, but she was far from a star. “I wasn’t sure I would get into college,” she said.
Western’s adviser for its College Bound program stepped in. “She was driven. She was ambitious, a go-getter,” said Nakia Green, the adviser. “The transcripts may not speak to your true capabilities.”
One day during her senior year, Williams said she tried unlock her apartment door and found her key no longer worked. “It took some time to resonate in my mind. Oh, OK. The locks have been changed,” she said.
Her aunt told her she hadn’t paid the rent and they were being evicted. Her aunt was going to live with a relative, but there wasn’t room for Williams.
“I had no clothes, nothing to wear for the next day,” she said. “I felt confused. I felt lost. I didn’t know what to do.”
Smith took Williams to her house. For months, she bounced between a friend’s house and Smith’s house just hoping to get through high school.
When a few college acceptances came, Williams decided her best option was to leave Baltimore. She chose Virginia Union because it offered a $2,000 scholarship. She said she was naive enough to think that was a lot of money for college.
When she got there, she began to thrive.
Williams began stopping by the office of Carleitta Paige-Anderson, an associate professor of biochemistry. Virginia Union created a circle of support around Williams, understanding that she didn’t have a traditional family supporting her, Paige-Anderson said.
“She has been able to leverage that circle of support,” Paige-Anderson said. “Not every student knows how to leverage those resources.”
Williams decided to become a resident assistant in a dorm so that she could stay on campus during holidays when she might not have a place to go.
She searched for summer internships that included housing. Last summer, she was able to get one at MIT.
She was anxious when she went to Cambridge, Mass.“You are a little black girl from West Baltimore. You don’t belong here,” she thought to herself.
But she found the group was warm and the professors encouraging. She said she was encouraged to apply to graduate school at MIT, but she thought, “Who for the life of them thinks they are getting into MIT?”
But she did — and with a full scholarship.
Lucas said he wanted to offer Williams the assistant professorship because he believes she would be a powerful teacher and mentor to students like herself. “She is ambitious but she is also patient. She is extremely articulate,” he said.
Williams was also the first student from Virginia Union to become a Rhodes Scholar finalist, the school said.
Williams said she is just beginning to imagine a future where she doesn’t have to struggle. “I think I am just transitioning out of survival mode.”