Columbia, S.C. — When the Benedict College president officially conferred the title of graduate on Monica Watts and her classmates Saturday morning, the Southeast Washington native pumped her right fist above her head in triumph.
That same fist had earned Watts the nickname “KO” for knockouts she posted whenever she squared off with girls, women and even young men as she fought her way through the Woodland Terrace neighborhood in Ward 8 as a leader of a girl gang during high school.
It was a long, tough journey from those high school hallways to the commencement ceremony in Columbia, S.C., where about a dozen family members, friends and community activists from the Washington area had traveled to see Watts earn a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. But with one walk across the stage, Watts became the first college graduate in her family and took another step toward putting a difficult childhood, racked with violence and death, behind her. It was a day that even her biggest cheerleaders worried might never come.
“I just wanted my mother to be proud of someone in the family,” Watts said with a broad smile after the ceremony, in between hugs and posing for photos with her mother, her guardian and a host of friends.
The path to graduation day is filled with obstacles for any college student, but particularly for young people trying to emerge from streets and lives that have been impacted by poverty and violence. They often don’t make it for many reasons: lack of money, the lure of the streets.
“The challenges are tremendous — not having enough money, too far from home. The pressure is so much they can’t take it,” said Juahar Abraham, one of Watts’s mentors who helped get her to Benedict College as part of the now-defunct anti-violence youth group Peaceoholics. “Monica is rare. She’s not the rule. Monica’s the exception.”
But Watts, 25, didn’t do it alone. As she donned the hood of a graduate, she peered over her shoulder toward Abraham and a handful of Southeast activists, the critical support team that had made this day possible. She gave them a wide grin.
“It’s a wonderful day. I feel great. I’m very proud of Monica; she’s been through a lot,” said Robin Vaughn, a family friend who has been Watts’s guardian since the second grade.
Indeed, by the time The Washington Post profiled Watts’s life in 2008, just weeks after her high school graduation, it was still unclear to many whether she would take advantage of the college opportunity. Deadly street violence had marred the then-19-year-old’s life and helped to disintegrate her family. By the time she left for Benedict she had already lost two brothers, two boyfriends and countless neighborhood friends to gun violence.
She had lived with a guardian since elementary school. As an adolescent, her feelings of loss were channeled through anger — anger she often let loose on District streets.
When she was 15, gang interventionists from Peaceoholics offered her a path to change.
Philip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, said that too many students with college potential who come from the city’s poor neighborhoods find frustration, and sometimes failure, in their pursuit of higher education. Sometimes their high school education hasn’t provided them the needed foundation. Others find financial difficulties. And some simply cannot leave behind the trauma they witnessed as youths. Indeed, Abraham said that since 2006, he has brought 32 students to Benedict College for an opportunity at an education — and Watts is only the third to graduate.
“We don’t track a number of these black students who come from challenged backgrounds, and in some cases they may have been at the top of their classes in high school,” Pannell said. “But [in college] they need remedial help, get frustrated and drop out. Some find they don’t have some basic amenities and don’t give their schoolwork all that is needed.”
Added to Watts’s burden, death continued to stalk people closest to her. During her five-and-a-half years of college, at least a dozen of her friends were killed back home, she said.
“So many times she would call me because this person got shot or this one was killed. We had about 10 of those situations,” Abraham recalled, and that doesn’t include the 10 or 15 times Watts wanted to come home to help a friend facing a judge in a courtroom.
Watts was not immune to the trend, either.
“I got arrested down here a couple of times . . . did 30 days in jail,” Watts acknowledged.
The first came freshman year, when she and two friends were arrested for public intoxication while hanging out in Five Points, the hub of college bars and restaurants in Columbia’s downtown. She failed to pay the fine and a bench warrant for her arrest led to jail time.
Later that year, at an on-campus party, as hometown go-go music played, another homestyle brawl brewed: District students fought a group from New Jersey and Watts found herself in the middle.
During her third year, Watts decided to stay home to help her guardian, who faced an illness and needed help and financial support. But while home, Watts engaged an old nemesis, a neighborhood woman nearly 10 years her senior, and Watts found herself facing a simple assault charge and another trip to jail.
One of her mentors, Dionne Bussey-Reeder, saw her protege in shackles in a District courtroom on that charge. Bussey-Reeder, a director at the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative Inc., a community organization, had hired Watts each summer during her breaks to supervise young adults during summer safety activities.
The paychecks Watts earned doing outreach helped pay tuition. When that money ran out, the collaborative, and sometimes Bussey-Reeder, kicked in to help cover the $625 in rent, cellphone bills or food costs. The mentor believed in Watts’s leadership abilities and knew the investment was worth it.
A potential jail sentence threatened to end the hopes of her mentors. Watts got lucky; she received a year’s probation. And she was motivated to persevere.
“I was ready to go back to school. I wanted to finish what I started,” Watts recalled. “Being in South Carolina, it opened my eyes that the world is bigger than D.C., bigger than my neighborhood.”
Still, financial problems persisted.
When the Peaceoholics lost funding and disbanded and Far Southeast couldn’t dig any deeper, two other Ward 8 community groups — the Anacostia Coordinating Council and the Black United Front — stepped forward to help Watts to reach this important day.
Ronald Moten, co-founder of Peaceoholics and a community activist, said that Watts’s story is typical of many young people across Wards 7 and 8, and that it takes community backing to help them succeed.
“Most people would have given up on a Monica , but in this case the village came together to get her across the finish line,” Moten said.
Watts said her education has made her thirsty for more knowledge of the world and of herself. She is considering postgraduate study, and perhaps a career in social work or community outreach with an organization like Far Southeast, where she could make a difference in a lives similar to hers.
Still, the haunts of her past follow and Watts’s sense of loyalty could derail her progress, her mentors said. Her sister’s three children were recently put into foster care and Watts is thinking if she could become their guardian she could keep them out of “the system.”
And while she walked across the stage for graduation Saturday, her diploma case did not contain a degree but a bill for more than $8,000. Watts earned the credits to graduate but won’t receive a diploma until the balance is paid.
Abraham and Bussey-Reeder are pushing Watts to stay in South Carolina for fear that if she returns home she will get caught up trying to solve other people’s problems before she is truly stable.
“Monica wants to save everybody. . . . My struggle with her is to try to save herself before she saves all of Woodland,” Bussey-Reeder said.
But the new graduate said she feels mature enough to think before reacting, to choose between right and wrong, and is grateful for the many who supported her and is eager to give back.
“I take responsibility for my own actions. . . . I’m not angry anymore,” Watts said. “I can’t blame my past for my future. I’m a bright young lady with a lot ahead of me.”