Britney Wilson graduated Saturday from Howard University in a flourish of collegiate honors: Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude. But none of them brought quite the same rush of pride as the shiny new handicapped door-opener that awaited her back at the residence hall.
“That’s my switch, right there,” Wilson said as she punched the metal square that activates the doors she cannot open with her hands because she has cerebral palsy.
Flowing blue gowns blossomed on the central quad of Howard’s Northwest Washington campus for the university’s 144th commencement exercise.
This weekend and next mark the peak of college graduation season: American, Catholic and Gallaudet universities, among others, held graduation ceremonies Friday and Saturday. The universities of Maryland and Virginia hold their commencements next weekend, as will Georgetown and George Washington universities.
The end of college is a seismic demographic event in Washington, emptying the city and its suburbs of more than 100,000 students, some of whom will return along with a fresh batch of freshmen in fall. Others, such as Britney Renee Wilson, will move on.
Wilson, 22, has spent much of her life fighting against societal ignorance and erratic special-education services. Her relationship with Washington’s fabled historically black university is equal parts love and frustration, but she believes that both she and the school are the better for it.
“I love Howard,” she said as she steered her scooter down a bumpy Georgia Avenue sidewalk after the morning ceremony. “I’m going to love it forever. But I’m going to say that I love what it could and should be, more than what it currently is.”
Howard spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said the university complies fully with the Americans with Disabilities Act but has made “tremendous progress” in the past four years to improve access while renovating aging facilities.
“We are proud of Britney and value her contributions to improve access during her time on campus,” she said.
Wilson wasn’t the first student to arrive at Howard with a disability. But she said she found herself in perpetual battle — over automatic door-openers that didn’t work and such basic privileges as a dormitory room on the first floor.
In the end, she got her first-floor room and the automated doors were fixed. But Wilson said she can’t help but wonder whether a less assertive student would have prevailed.
“As a black, female, disabled person, I’ve been an anomaly, not just at Howard but everywhere,” she said.
“When you’re female, people don’t want you to be vocal and aggressive, but when you have a disability, you have to be vocal and aggressive to get what you need. And if you’re a black person, they especially don’t want you to be vocal and aggressive. And when you put all of that together, you get me.”
Wilson was born in Brownsville, the working-class east Brooklyn neighborhood that produced Larry King and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Her father, Victor, was a lawyer. After her parents divorced, Britney was raised by her mother, Roslyn, an administrator with New York’s social services department.
Wilson’s cerebral palsy diagnosis came at 18 months, after her mother recognized that she “wasn’t sitting like normal kids would and she wasn’t walking.” Wilson learned to walk with a two-wheeled walker, then crutches.
She attended Catholic schools, riding in a special-education bus filled with public school students.
As Wilson progressed into gifted classes and academic demands rose, her mother found herself drawn into fights with the school board over the lax bus service, which often delivered Wilson to school late. On days when the public schools were closed, sometimes it wouldn’t come at all.
When Wilson was old enough to take stock of her situation, her mother told her, “Not being able to walk isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
In summer, Wilson’s mother kept her busy with workbooks from a teacher’s bookstore. Television was allowed only on weekends.
On her daily bus rides, Wilson saw “just how low society’s expectations are for children with special needs,” she recalled. “Kids the same age as me were still coloring and doing crafts when I was doing pre-algebra.”
She kept a 4.0 grade-point average at Cathedral High School in Manhattan and was tapped as the first winner of the Full Ride Scholarship from the Tom Joyner Foundation. The scholarship from the foundation, named for the nationally syndicated radio host, covered tuition and living expenses.
During high school, Wilson came to Georgetown University with the Junior State of America program. After that, “I wanted to be the great lawyer-politician,” Wilson said.
She applied to Georgetown, Catholic, George Washington and Howard and was accepted by all four universities. She chose Howard.
“People discount the importance of HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities],” she said. “But it’s so important to find out who you are.”
At Howard, Wilson became an advocate and critic. She penned a column for the Hilltop campus newspaper: Mut(e)iny: The Silent Rebellion. In it, she railed against Howard’s social cliques, lamented the scarcity of student-scholars and celebrated the propensity for a math class to suddenly veer into a discussion of black history.
The graduation ceremony sparked one last dispute with Howard officials.
“They were going to put me off to the side,” in a handicapped section, Wilson said. “I was like, ‘Ah, I want to sit with my class.’ They put a wooden plank in the grass for me to park my scooter.”
Dignitaries gathered beneath a blue canopy on the main quad, with black, blue and white chairs radiating outward. Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered an oration.
After the ceremony, Britney rolled slowly back to her dorm room in Howard’s East Tower, stopping every few yards to embrace a classmate.
“I’m so proud of you, girl,” cooed one.
Another told her mother, “There is no Class of 2012 without Britney Wilson.”
At Friday’s recognition ceremony, when Wilson crossed the stage to receive her actual diploma, the entire class stood and applauded.
Come fall, Wilson will be in law school. Howard will be a memory; a fond one, despite it all.
“This place has shaped me,” she said. “It made me who I am.”