A graduation 15 years in the making for the "Movie Scene Queen"
Like a line of dominoes laid out nicely across a table, life seemed to be lining up in an orderly fashion for Merecedes Williams. When those dominoes began to fall, however, Merecedes was challenged to adapt, and in the process, reveal her true character and grit.
Born and bred in Pittsburgh's historic Hill District, right up the street from Duquesne's campus, Merecedes comes from a family that was active in politics and advocated for creating equity and opportunity at home for all city residents regardless of race or class. Her uncle is Sala Udin, a long-time city councilman and now board member for Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS).
After graduating from Schenley High School with honors, she matriculated to Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black college (HBCU), but returned to Pittsburgh after getting pregnant. She enrolled at CCAC and then came to Duquesne's McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts to study journalism. Despite the demands of raising a child, attending college and working at Pittsburgh Public Schools as a tutor, Merecedes was also an active member of the Black Student Union and worked alongside the director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Dr. Rahmon Hart. She recalled with a bit of a chuckle of bringing her daughter Marjani to the club's meetings, her resting on Merecedes' lap.
As if raising a child while working at PPS and being a full-time undergraduate student wasn't challenging enough, 2009 and 2010 put more life-changing hurdles in her way. First, she was involved in a car accident where she was rendered unconscious. A few weeks later in early 2010 during "Snowmageddon," one of Pittsburgh's worst snowstorms ever, her house caught on fire. Merecedes, her daughter Marjani and her second child, son Zaire, became homeless. "We were homeless for the next 18, 19 months."
They slept on a few friends' couches and spare bedrooms during that time. "I was registered for a full set of classes for the Spring of 2010 and I just couldn't do it. It was just too much. I knew there was no way I could go back to Duquesne," she said. Merecedes continued her work at PPS and raising her children. On several occasions she reached out to Fr. Sean Hogan, C.S.Sp. and president of the Duquesne University Scholarship Association, to talk about her status and he encouraged her to reenroll but it never seemed to work out.
Not having a college degree didn't stop Merecedes from also becoming a renowned film critic for the New Pittsburgh Courier and entertainment blogger, the "Movie Scene Queen," which she received recognition from the City of Pittsburgh when they named May 14, 2019 "Movie Scene Queen Day." She received the honor in part for hosting 215 advanced movie screenings and distributing more than 50,000 free movie tickets to city residents. At the time she noted that, "Movie Scene Queen provides a platform in community service, a voice for the unheard and access to entertainment for all."
Fast forward to November 2020 and Williams felt like she needed to finally finish what she started at Duquesne and earn her undergraduate degree. Since she had an unpaid tuition balance, she launched a Facebook fundraiser and asked her community for help to complete her bigger goal. They came through, even tripling the amount she needed. She was also put it touch with Dr. Anthony Kane, director of the Center for Excellence in Diversity and Student Inclusion. Fr. Hogan along with Dr. Kane helped Merecedes navigate the process of paying off her balance and reenrolling in the Multiplatform Journalism program.
"Literally the support that came from them just poured in and I felt so, vulnerable about telling my story in order to get that help, but I felt like I needed to," Merecedes said. She spoke with particular reverence that Dr. Kane has continued to follow up to see how her classes have been going. "It is just like guidance mixed with love, mixed with comfort, mixed with care, mixed with compassion."
Given all her life experience Merecedes reminds other Duquesne students to "Speak up. Don't struggle in silence. You are your own voice." Since coming back to the Bluff she's been able to help other journalism students because she has so much experience with digital media at PPS, where she continues to work as their media manager. Merecedes aims to pay it forward and help other students who have dropped out and have a desire to return and finish their degrees. "Now I understand what they're going through," she remarked.
The journey across the Commencement stage, while 15 years in the making, is only a waypoint for Williams. She is proud of herself and the supporters she made at Duquesne. Her journey continues in January, when she begins her Master of Science in Leadership program at Duquesne. Prepared, she will continue her path of service as a leader at PPS, as the "Movie Scene Queen" and as a role model to her children.
December 16, 2021