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Kevin Cullen

Beyond all expectations

Taisha Sturdivant (left) on the campus of Brandeis University, where she is a junior. Taisha Sturdivant (left) on the campus of Brandeis University, where she is a junior.
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / September 10, 2009

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Thousands upon thousands of college kids returned to classes around here this week. None of them has a story like Taisha Sturdivant’s.

She never knew her dad. When she was 6, her mother married a preacher’s son. The preacher’s son gave her mother many things, including HIV.

Taisha Sturdivant grew up around Four Corners, in Dorchester, on a dead end called Harvard Park that looked nothing like a park and was home to no one who went to Harvard. The gangsters sold their drugs and fired their guns and Taisha winced at the pop-pop-pop and kept her head down.

Her brother started running with a gang, and then one day he wasn’t running anymore: He was standing, in a courtroom, in front of a judge, because he sold drugs.

“First time I was in a courtroom, I was 12. It was to show support for my brother,’’ she said. “He’s still incarcerated.’’

The next time she was in a courtroom, she was 15. She had received one of the fellowships named after the late federal judge David Nelson. The chief federal judge, Mark Wolf, was going around the courtroom at orientation, asking all the city kids how many of their friends had been murdered, and when he got to Taisha Sturdivant, she said, “Eighteen.’’

She keeps the list in her head. She remembers their names, their faces, where they fell.

She was 15 years old and her mother had just died of AIDS. She was on her own and treading water in the open ocean that was Four Corners.

“I could have gone either way when I was 15,’’ she said. “I had a lot of behavioral problems in school. I used to get in fights.’’

She was at English High and didn’t want to leave her friends. She didn’t want to go to college; she didn’t think she could get into college. But her mother wanted her to go to an alternative high school, Another Course to College, and when her mother died, she knew she had to go.

“It’s something I did for her,’’ she said.

A teacher, Jerry Howland, took a shine to her and started acting as if the only question was where Taisha Sturdivant would go to college.

She kept returning to the federal courthouse every summer, and the judges put her to work. She worked for Wolf and Nancy Gertner and Patti Sarris. And she worked for Reggie Lindsay, who knew what it was like to grow up poor and black and being expected to know your place.

By the time Taisha Sturdivant enrolled at Brandeis, many of the kids she grew up with were dead, in prison, or, like her sister, single parents living in the projects.

“No one I grew up with went to college,’’ she said. “No one.’’

She doesn’t think she’s anything special.

“I got lucky,’’ she said, sitting in Shapiro Campus Center, where she works as a building manager when she isn’t studying.

“I got some opportunities that others didn’t. I met people who took an interest in me, who told me I could do anything despite everything in my background.

“I don’t want to let these people down. I feel this pressure to succeed, for them as much as for me. It’s not a negative pressure. It’s more a motivator.

“I’m one mistake away from ending up like everybody I grew up with. That’s enough motivation for me.’’

She is 20 years old, going on 40. She’s a junior at Brandeis and she’s been on the dean’s list every semester. She writes poetry and knows a lot about the world. She spent last summer on the Mexican border, working with immigrants. She’s going to Ghana in January, for six months, to put into practice some of her ideas on education.

She’s going to finish up at Brandeis next year, go to law school, and then Taisha Sturdivant is going to change the world.

Believe it.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.