South L.A. student finds a different world at UC Berkeley

School had always been his safe harbor.

Growing up in one of South Los Angeles' bleakest, most violent neighborhoods, he learned about the world by watching "Jeopardy" and willed himself to become a straight-A student.

His teachers and his classmates at Jefferson High all rooted for the slight and hopeful African American teenager. He was named the prom king, the most likely to succeed, the senior class salutatorian. He was accepted to UC Berkeley, one of the nation's most renowned public universities.

A semester later, Kashawn Campbell sat inside a cramped room on a dorm floor that Cal reserves for black students. It was early January, and he stared nervously at his first college transcript.

There wasn't much good to see.

He had barely passed an introductory science course. In College Writing 1A, his essays — pockmarked with misplaced words and odd phrases — were so weak that he would have to take the class again.

He had never felt this kind of failure, nor felt this insecure. The second term was just days away and he had a 1.7 GPA. If he didn't improve his grades by school year's end, he would flunk out.

He tried to stay calm. He promised himself he would beat back the depression that had come in waves those first months of school. He would work harder, be better organized, be more like his roommate and new best friend, Spencer Simpson, who was making college look easy.

On a nearby desk lay a small diary he recently filled with affirmations and goals. He thumbed through it.

"I can do this! I can do this!" he had written. "Let the studying begin! … It's time for Kashawn's Comeback!"

This is the story of Kashawn Campbell's freshman year.


Nothing had ever been easy for Kashawn.

"When I delivered him, I thought he was dead," said his mother, Lillie, recalling the umbilical cord tight around his neck. "He was still as stone but eventually he came to. Proved he was a survivor. Ever since, I've called him my miracle child."

A single mom, she often worked two jobs to make ends meet, at times as a graveyard shift security guard. Someone needed to care for her baby, so she paid an elderly neighbor named Sylvia to house, feed and care for Kashawn.

"Me and Kashawn always had a strong connection," Lillie said. "But Sylvia raised my boy, yes she did."

Sylvia didn't read many magazines, newspapers or books. Only rarely did she take Kashawn outside their neighborhood. Still, she was kind and loving, and he loved her in turn, as if she were his grandmother.

"I used what she taught me and expanded it," Kashawn said. That meant deciding early on that the life he was surrounded by wasn't what he wanted his future to be. "I had to be the one to push myself to do beyond well…. If I didn't do that, nothing was going to ever change."

Jefferson, made up almost entirely of Latinos and blacks, had a woeful reputation. His freshman year, just under 13% of its students were judged to be proficient in English, less than 1% in math.

"It was so rare to have a kid like Kashawn, especially an African American male, wanting that badly to go to college," said Jeremy McDavid, a former Jefferson vice principal. "We got together as a staff and decided that this kid, we cannot let him down."