Drugs, Murder, Race, and Harvard

Prep For Prep is an organization that identifies and prepares bright poor kids to attend New York City's elite private schools. Judged by college admissions, it is a great success. Prep for Prep sends a slightly higher proportion of its graduates (about a quarter) to Ivy League schools than such traditional Ivy spawns as Groton or St. Paul's. It currently has 40 kids at Harvard, more than Choate or Hotchkiss. Chanequa Campbell, 21, a native of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and a member of Harvard's class of 2009, was regarded as a model Prep for Prep student. In May 2005, at Prep for Prep's annual Lilac Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Campbell spoke to a thousand guests, many of them wealthy bankers and lawyers, about overcoming the challenge of living in two worlds. At home, she said, she was sometimes regarded as "too white." At school, she said, she was sometimes regarded as "too black." But with the support of Prep for Prep, she found a sense of community and a sense of self-worth. She said she was proud to both be "in the 'hood" and going to Harvard. She received a standing ovation.

On June 4, Campbell was scheduled to receive her Harvard diploma in sociology at a traditional ceremony in the leafy neo-Georgian courtyard of Kirkland House, one of Harvard's undergraduate residences. The day would come as final validation of the faith that others had in Chanequa, and that she had in herself. About 20 members of Chanequa's family were expecting to attend.

But on May 18, a 21-year-old African-American male, a non-Harvard student named Justin Cosby, was shot in the Kirkland House basement, in what was reported to be an attempted drug rip-off gone wrong. Cosby later died of his wounds. Three young black men, none of them Harvard students, were implicated in the shooting. At a press conference, the local district attorney, Gerard Leone, also linked two Harvard seniors to the men: Brittany Smith and Chanequa Campbell. (One of the men charged in the murder was reported to be Smith's boyfriend.) He did not elaborate on the connection, but the "common denominator," said the D.A., was "drugs." The story was widely reported in the national press.

Within a few days of the shooting, both Smith and Campbell were told by Harvard to leave campus and were denied their diplomas, at least for now. Their belongings were shipped after them. Campbell testified before a grand jury on May 20. Her lawyer, Jeff Karp, told NEWSWEEK, "This is a classic case of guilt by association. I can confidently say she won't be charged." The lawyer says Campbell was off taking an exam when the shooting occurred, and Campbell has publicly denied Internet rumors that she dealt drugs. It does not appear that she will be charged in the case, though the investigation is ongoing. Citing privacy issues and a desire not to interfere with an ongoing criminal probe, Harvard has maintained a studied silence about the whole affair. Smith, who also has not been charged with any crime, has not commented.

Campbell's connection to the men involved in the shooting is murky. It may be that she was guilty of nothing more serious than socializing with some of them. But the case has been played in the press as part tragedy, part morality tale, with dark insinuations about the long reach of underclass culture. For Campbell, the incident has been the source of emotional and physical pain. Her would-be rescuers are heartbroken by her fall from grace, but that's not the way she sees it. She scoffs at the suggestion that she brought the 'hood to Harvard. She is proud of her roots and wants to hold on to them; she just doesn't want to be typecast.

After making some ill-considered remarks to the press, blaming Harvard for singling her out because she was black, and dressed and spoke "in a certain way," Campbell has largely avoided speaking to reporters. But she sat down with a NEWSWEEK reporter at an Italian restaurant on the edge of Bed-Stuy. She arrived wearing a crisp oxford cloth shirt, heavy gold jewelry, and expensive designer sneakers. She was at first wary, then warm, but her eyes narrowed when she thought the questioning veered toward stereotype. She talked about her life and seemed eager to clarify misconceptions about her that have appeared in the press, but she declined to discuss the case and asked not to be quoted directly because she fears fueling the story and alienating Harvard. From this interview, and interviews with people close to her, it is possible to describe her remarkable but tortuous path. The portrait that emerges is of a young woman who is often strong and ebullient, but who suffers from serious, at times crippling, self-doubt—who is determined to go her own way, but is not quite able to free herself of the expectations and assumptions of others.

Campbell's early life centered on the somewhat ramshackle house on Lafayette Street owned by her grandmother Virginia Campbell. It has been a house filled mostly with women—Virginia Campbell's six daughters and their 13 children, of whom Chanequa was the eldest. Chanequa's aunts are noisy, opinionated, and funny. Her father has been mostly absent—in and out of prison. The family is close but chaotic. (Virginia Campbell's husband was murdered in 1984.)

From childhood, Chanequa was a bright student who won prizes and recognition at school. In fifth grade, she was selected for Prep for Prep's 14-month training program, taking extra classes in the summer and after school. Erin Duffy, one of her teachers at Prep for Prep (and still her mentor and close friend), recalls that Chanequa seemed frightened and angry and almost got into a fight on the bus on her first day. But at Prep for Prep, she appeared to blossom. Chanequa was the first person ever selected for the Samona Society, a recognition awarded by Prep for Prep for children who most powerfully grasp the possibilities of their own education.

At Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, which Chanequa attended from seventh grade through high school, she was a standout student and athlete, popular with all social groups. NEWSWEEK asked a number of her classmates what she was like. "I would say proud," replied Dan Curbelo Zeidman (Packer '05, Williams '09). "A pride that came from knowing that she was doing her best. There was definitely a sense of, 'I know where I want to go and I'm going to get there. I'm going to give my best, and that's going to be enough to get me into a place like Harvard.' "

She got into Harvard and all 14 colleges she applied to. She won a National Merit Scholarship for high test scores and scholarships from The New York Times and Coca-Cola for overall achievement. She was drawn to a small liberal-arts college in California. She liked the relaxed atmosphere, the supportive feel of the students. Instead, she went to Harvard, not so much because she really wanted to, but because she wanted to show that someone from Bed-Stuy could make it at the nation's best-known brand-name university.

Although as a high-school student she increasingly came across as outgoing and confident, Duffy, her friend and adviser from Prep for Prep, observed that at some deeper level she remained "a frightened and lonely child" who seemed to be "looking over her shoulder" at times, "wondering where all these opportunities were coming from." She was "a little leery, yet so generous in her spirit that she was a valued mentor to younger students and a trusted colleague to adults," says Duffy.

In her senior year at Packer, Chanequa had a falling-out with her mother. Chanequa's mother is not poor. She has held a steady job with New York state, and there was always money for clothes and the occasional trip to Florida. But her mother was not like the hovering parents of other Packer students. Chanequa was raised to be independent and to shrug off adversity. Even with a partial scholarship, her mother and aunts had to sacrifice to pay Chanequa's fees at Packer. But the adults around her, who expected her to meet her responsibilities on her own, never asked if she had done her homework.

Chanequa had to learn to live on both sides of New York's vast social and wealth divide. As a young teen, she attended her first Chanukah at a classmate's apartment in the Fifth Avenue luxury building where Tina Fey lives. She did not, however, often invite her friends to visit her home in Bed-Stuy, and she never asked for permission to go on expensive trips with her classmates, recognizing it might be hurtful to her family, who could not pay her way. There may have been some mother-daughter rivalry involved. Her mother did not have her daughter's opportunities, but in some ways was just as driven. While Chanequa was at Harvard, her mother went back to school, earning a master's degree.

The tension between mother and daughter was exacerbated by what Chanequa saw as a lack of sympathy on her mother's part. Suffering from severe pain in her joints, Chanequa was diagnosed in April 2003 with lupus, an auto-immune deficiency that causes the body to attack itself. Not knowing the severity of Chanequa's illness, her mother told her to tough it out. An aunt finally insisted that Chanequa see a doctor, though it was her mother who then took time off work to go with her to her treatments. (Chanequa's mother declined to comment.)

In the spring of her senior year in high school, the tensions between mother and daughter reached a breaking point. Chanequa moved out of her mother's house to her grandmother's, a few blocks away. Campbell clearly loves and respects her mother very much, and acknowledges that she bears some of the responsibility for the discord in their relationship.

Harvard became Chanequa's surrogate home. Though elite and academically rigorous, Packer has a student culture that is more supportive than at some cutthroat private schools. (Packer eighth graders attend a "Nurturing the Soul Day.") Harvard, on the other hand, is a large and diverse university. It can be, at least for some students, a coldly competitive place. If they wish, black students can find a welcome in several black organizations, but these groups have their own complex social stratifications and conformities. More than half of Harvard's 600 or so black students are from Africa or the Caribbean, and many African-Americans have families rooted in socially elite clubs and organizations like Jack and Jill, and Boulé. The head of the Black Students Association reprimanded some freshmen for wearing parkas, instead of preppy peacoats, to the winter formal. Chanequa, quick to go her own way, responded by arriving at another formal in a full-length white fur coat. An eclectic dresser, Chanequa wears sneakers designed by Gucci and Prada. Some students are called "incognegro," Harvard slang for blacks who don't embrace their racial identity. Chanequa was disdained by some as "too black," too street-tough.

Toward the end of freshman year, feeling alienated at home and at school, Chanequa suffered a mental breakdown. At about this time, according to The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, she got in trouble with school authorities for forging a check for $300. Campbell would not discuss the incident.

She worked at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street after her sophomore year. Harvard has more than a few rich kids, especially from New York, and Chanequa felt pressure to cash in: there was an assumption by her family in Brooklyn that she would become wealthy. She found herself resenting the privileged "legacies" (children of alumni) and their easy connections. She decided that finance was not her calling. She was more excited by travel—and visited 14 countries, thanks partly to financial support from Harvard (she also held a number of paid part-time jobs around the university). She spent her entire junior year abroad and was particularly taken with Italy, which she has visited 13 times and where she now has a boyfriend, a model who is half Italian, half Ghanaian.

At Harvard, she had a few close friends of very different backgrounds. At one extreme was Honor McGee, whose mother is a white Harvard grad who writes for The New York Times and whose father is a black Harvard grad and executive at HBO. (When McGee tried to run for a position with the Black Students Association, a debate ensued over whether she was "black enough.") At the other end of the social spectrum was Brittany Smith, who came from a poor background in Harlem. Chanequa and Brittany had known each other in high school, but became close only in their senior year at Harvard. They worked office jobs together for a Harvard student agency, and made extra money as waitresses for a catering company that put on parties for wealthy Cambridge residents. The two women sometimes hung out in Chanequa's room at Kirkland House.

In April of this year, the Black Students Association sent around "senior superlatives" on the organization's listserv. Campbell was named "Most Likely to Be America's Most Wanted." Hurt, Campbell sent her friends in the Association of Black Harvard Women an e-mail: "So few people in this community actually KNOW me or HAVE met me or EVER interacted with me … this is Harvard, why would we wish ill on anyone? I can take a joke but it seems the equivalent of who is the most likely to be hit by a car."

This was before the shooting incident. Afterward, there was a notable lack of support for Campbell from other blacks at Harvard. These young people were in an awkward spot—embrace Chanequa and risk being tarred by association with her; reject her and be accused of selling out. But many felt the circumstances of the shooting, and the publicity surrounding it, would make life more difficult for all black kids at Harvard. The shooters and their victim somehow had gained entry to Kirkland House, which requires an electronic identification card. One black senior, who declined tobe identified discussing a sensitive subject, pointed out that young black men at Harvard have long complained that other students, fearful of intruders, won't open the door for them when they forget their IDs. "Now they never will," said this student.

Campbell did not win much sympathy from the larger Harvard community, and she disappointed her Prep for Prep supporters, when she told The Boston Globe that she had been unfairly banned from Harvard because, as she put it, "I'm black and I'm poor and I'm from New York." She later said that she had been quoted out of context. "I did not say that Harvard is racist," she said.

Chanequa's family was disappointed to miss the triumph and pomp of Harvard graduation. Chanequa decided to have a graduation party anyway—"celebrating what I EARNED," she said on the e-mail invitation. The party, held in early June at a community center in Bed-Stuy, was not much fun for her. She had been in the hospital suffering from stomach pains that have defied diagnosis. Arriving at the party at midnight, she was vomiting and left after an hour. She is worried about losing her Harvard-provided health insurance, which expires soon, and upset about her 12 boxes of belongings, which somehow disappeared after Harvard shipped them to her home in Bed-Stuy. She says she is worn down by battling the preconceptions of others, though she realizes there is no escape—she saw news of the Harvard shooting in the London Times and in publications from Italy to Australia. Somewhat dreamily, she speaks of revolutions brought about by youth for the good of all. Recently, she took off for Italy with a one-way plane ticket. But she still hopes, someday, to get her Harvard degree.

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