On a sunny afternoon in early September, so hot the public schools dismissed early, Hazim Hardeman strolled into the neighborhood where he grew up, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with “North Philly” in large red letters across the front.

It was here, in the Raymond Rosen housing development, that Hazim fell in love with sports, music, clothing. Here, where he spent hours each day on the basketball court, indulging boyish dreams of stardom, and nights at his best friend’s house nearby. Here, where even at 24, he knows so many people — and most everyone recognizes him.

“Hazim for president!” a childhood friend called out as he passed.

That’s how it’s been since the Temple University graduate was named the school’s first-ever Rhodes scholar last year, and one of 32 nationally.

Founded in 1902, the scholarships are perhaps the world’s most celebrated post-graduate awards, offering a chance to study free at the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, for two or three years. By winning one, Hazim joined an esteemed list that includes former President Bill Clinton; Susan Rice, the first African American female U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter; and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.).

But while many Rhodes scholars come from privileged backgrounds with Ivy League degrees, Hazim’s path was sinuous, improbable, the kind of story usually reserved for Hollywood scriptwriters — and one that has driven him to make sure it’s not so unusual in the future.

Hazim grew up in a tough neighborhood that has one of the city’s highest violent crime rates, attended an under-resourced, struggling school system, faced challenges that nearly led him to fail out of high school — and started out in remedial classes in college. For many kids, such challenges are too daunting, the chance at success too fleeting — a fact that now drives Hazim.

“Don’t be happy for me that I overcame these barriers,” he says. “Be mad as hell that they exist in the first place.”

He sees his own triumph as part pluck, part luck. Growing up, he learned to be aware of his surroundings, to watch passing cars, to know how his life could change in an instant if he stepped one way when a friend went the other.

Walking through the old neighborhood in September, he pointed to the spot where he saw an acquaintance stabbed to death and the faded marks on the basketball court where he and friends spray painted “RIP SHADDY” for another teen shot to death. The best friend who lived across from him? Gone, too. Killed a couple years ago.

So, as he approached the market at 23rd and Diamond Streets and faint, fanciful music from what sounded like an ice-cream truck played in the distance, Hazim knew what to do when the gunfire started.

Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom.

Nine shots in all, loud and in rapid succession. Then screeching car tires.

Hazim and those with him darted between buildings, then away from the corner. Later, he would learn a 26-year-old man had been shot in the back.

A rocky start

Hazim had moved into the low-income housing development with his older brother and mother just before he entered third grade. He had been at a couple of other schools, as the family moved and his mother searched for the best option. Gwendolyn Hardeman had a difficult childhood, growing up in foster care in Atlanta, suffering struggles she did not care to discuss. She was determined to give her sons a strong educational foundation.

One day she went down the block to check out the neighborhood school, William Dick, and didn’t like what she saw: Students on the tables, and teachers unable to get them down, she said.

So Hazim’s mother did what many Philadelphia parents in poor neighborhoods do to give their children a shot: She went to look for a better one. She boarded a bus to Roxborough, a neighborhood where she had seen schools that looked better.

She spotted the school she liked most, Shawmont Elementary, then found a nearby apartment building and jotted down the address, she said. She would later falsely use it as her own so Hazim and his brother could attend.

Shawmont was a majority-white school that seemed to her to have more resources and order, and felt like a school where quality learning was occurring. Nearly half its students meet state standards in reading, compared with just 10 percent at Dick.

Her own experience and struggles helped Hardeman realize how life-changing and important it was to give her sons access to a good education at a young age. In a way, she saw it as “a life-and-death situation,” Hazim would say later.

But the better school came at a price. On school days, Hazim said, he and his brother would have to rise at 4 a.m. to catch the bus and get to school across the city. The return trip was long, too.

Then, school administrators started calling. Hazim wouldn’t stay in his seat. His mother said she thought maybe he was having trouble focusing, and got the school to provide an aide to keep him on task.

No one thought the problem might be boredom, a lack of challenge, or the result of having to rise so early just to get to school.

When he returned home to his North Philadelphia neighborhood at night, Hazim was singularly focused: He would race to the basketball court, not even taking the time to change his clothes or drop off his book bag. His fifth-grade class picture noted that he wanted to be a McDonald’s All-American high school basketball player.

It was a neighborhood that had spawned greatness. Hall of Fame basketball player and coach Dawn Staley grew up near 23rd and Diamond. So, too, did the rapper Meek Mill.

Less than a mile away was Temple. As kids, Hazim and his friends would boisterously pedal their bikes through the sprawling campus, as if to reclaim a space they thought was rightfully theirs. And yet it still seemed a world not open to them.

Hazim felt he had gotten a good education at Shawmont. But he began to flounder in the next few years.

The family bounced for a stretch between Philadelphia and Atlanta, where Hazim’s grandmother lived. At one point, his mother stayed in Atlanta and Hazim moved in with his sister, about 10 years older than him, in Philadelphia.

It’s a scenario that’s not wildly uncommon in poor pockets of the city, one that can affect a child’s development.

Hazim’s mother, he acknowledges, was the most influential person in his life. She was gone for about 18 months. He missed her deeply.

Children play on the same basketball court at Hank Gathers Youth Access Center in North Philadelphia where Hazim played years ago.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Children play on the same basketball court at Hank Gathers Youth Access Center in North Philadelphia where Hazim played years ago.

By 10th grade, he was enrolled at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical High School on a path that could never lead to Oxford. Fewer than 10 percent of its students score as proficient on standardized tests. More than a third ultimately go onto college, but most graduate with an eye toward a trade or other career.

At Dobbins, Hazim skipped classes. There was a Spanish class he attended only once. He spent much of his time hall-walking, hanging in bathrooms or stairwells with groups of students, avoiding class, playing cards.

For a time, gambling to make money “was the only reason I went to school,” he recalled.

Carolyn C. Monson, then a Dobbins teacher, remembers encountering Hazim in those halls and encouraging him to return to class. He’d smile at her and keep walking.

He was always pleasant, she said, but he kept his brilliance a secret.

Hazim as a child.
Handout
Hazim as a child.

One day, Hazim’s father showed up unexpectedly at the school. His father had never really been a part of his life, but told the teen he had come into some money and wanted to reconnect. After that day, Hazim said, he never saw him again.

By the time his mother returned, Hazim was failing just about every class at Dobbins. But having her back proved to be the lifeline he so desperately needed. After seeing the disappointment on her face when she realized he was stumbling along the wrong path, Hazim was determined not to let her down. He sharpened his focus on school.

She paid for him to take “credit recovery” classes so he could catch up. Then he enrolled at the now-defunct Hope Charter School for 12th grade.

In time, his grades improved.

Then, during his senior year, he was recognized in an essay competition, and was asked to read his work aloud at a Germantown site that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The room that day was packed. When he finished his speech — about revolution in an international context and the Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy uprisings in Muslim countries in 2011 — everyone applauded. Hazim realized his experience mattered. His voice mattered.

He was back on track. With a 2.3 GPA, Temple wasn’t within reach. But Community College of Philadelphia was.

Back on track

CCP is the way station for so many Philadelphians, young and old, who recognize how critical a college degree has become but lack the resources or grades to get there. Still, it can be a journey; fewer than one in four students graduates within six years.

Hazim arrived on a mission.

When students begin at CCP, they select an avatar to represent them in the college’s learning management system. He selected a photo of himself in his high school graduation cap and gown.

That was significant to assistant professor Amy Lewis.

“This was somebody who really valued the fact that he had graduated from high school,” she said she thought.

Lewis taught developmental English, a remedial class.. Many students take such refresher classes before regular courses, because they’ve been out of school for a while, or didn’t get what they needed in high school, or somehow had their education derailed.

Within a couple of weeks, Hazim demonstrated he no longer needed remedial work, Lewis said. Still, he always came to class, sitting straight, his eyes fixed on her, eager for feedback.

Within a couple of semesters, Hazim was admitted to CCP’s intensive honors program. It teaches students to master their material, reflect on it, and listen and repeat what they hear, to be sure they understand.

For him, it became a transformative experience. It’s where Hazim began “falling in love with the life of the mind,” as he calls it.

Such academic awakenings aren’t unusual. About a third of the students in the CCP honors program had started, like Hazim, in remedial classes.

But when it occurs in the educational process varies. Some might be inspired by a teacher or experience in high school. Others may see the process interrupted by family or personal problems, or a lackluster school system.

For Hazim, there had been earlier glimmers. At Dobbins, a teacher had given him the book Tyrell, by Coe Booth, about a young African American male living with his troubled mother and brother in a homeless shelter and trying to navigate adolescence. It stirred something in him.

“The book,” he would later say, “spoke to me. It resonated with me as I saw myself reflected in its pages. It let me know I wasn’t alone in the world.”

At CCP, he found new inspiration in the writings of Paolo Friere, a Brazilian scholar who expounded on teaching and learning. His treatise, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argues for students to be treated as co-creators of knowledge rather than as empty vessels to be filled.

Soon Hazim’s bedroom windowsill was stacked with books, including Michel Foucault’s The Government of Self and Others, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and a collection by the African American philosopher and activist Cornel West. Reading, he said, suddenly gave him “a vision of the world, my world, as it could be.”

Hazim sat in the front row for every class. He met regularly with his professors and took an interest in their research. Outside of class, he explored broader academic questions.

Staff noticed.

“Ever see a kid eat and see him pack all that away and wonder where it’s going?” said Corey Tucker, academic coordinator for TRiO Student Support Services at CCP, which helps first generation and low-income students. “Hazim was the same way with information.”

Hazim began to distinguish himself as a leader, too, winning election as CCP’s student body vice president. In April 2015, a month shy of graduation, he was a guest on the WHYY program Radio Times as one of three outstanding first-generation college students.

He was ready for Temple.

Making of a scholar

Hazim stepped to the lectern in the small room, just to the side of the musty smelling chapel at Graterford Prison.

It was second semester of his senior year, and the final class of Death and Dying, a course taught at the correctional facility as part of a Temple exchange program that pairs undergraduates and prisoners for side-by-side learning.

The experience had been profound for Hazim. Over the semester, students — both those imprisoned and those who weren’t — had shared personal losses, deaths of loved ones, their own transgressions and regrets.

A student in Temple’s honors program, Hazim was on target to graduate magna cum laude, and on the path to becoming a social justice scholar.

In that way, Hazim had become a stellar example of what Temple’s founder, Russell Conwell, meant when he talked of cultivating “acres of diamonds” in the school’s North Philadelphia community. The challenge, of course, is finding them and giving them the resources to grow.

“We have a lot of Hazim Hardemans in the School District of Philadelphia,” said William R. Hite Jr., its superintendent. “We have to ensure that people are equipped with the ability to challenge those young people, to engage them, and to make sure what they’re learning is relevant to what they want to pursue.”

Hazim had a plan. He saw his own future as a professor and researcher whose work would target the injustices in his community and the larger world. He also had become a self-described prison abolitionist.

As the weekly visits to Graterford were ending, Hazim’s classmates chose him to give closing remarks. That day, he faced them as they sat before him, half of them Temple students dressed in street clothes and the other half inmates in faded maroon uniforms, many of them serving life sentences and giving support to dying inmates in the prison hospice program.

The room was quiet, still, somber. He knew half the room would be leaving the prison walls, and the other half could not. He wanted to leave them all with a sense of righteous anger.

“For the past 16 weeks, we’ve been participants in the disintegration of the walls that divide us,” Hazim said in a deep, warm voice that seemed to envelop the room, “not only through dialogue but through learning from each other, through opening up to each other and through respecting one another.”

The world needs justice, he said, that emphasizes rehabilitation and restoration of each person’s humanity. Those who have suffered, he believes, have much to teach the world.

“Instead of having notions of justice that are imbued with an ethic of discipline and punishment, we need a justice that is filled with an ethic of love, of compassion, and investment,” Hazim said that day. “Once we re-conceptualize our notions of justice, we not only tear down the walls around us, but within us — as we become no longer resigned to the world as it is, and begin to imagine the world as it can be.”

When he finished, there was barely a dry eye in the room.

Ruth Ost, senior director of Temple’s honors program, counted the moment among the most valuable of her life. She likened it to hearing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. And she thought for the first time: Hazim could be a Rhodes scholar.

His advancement over two years as a strategic communication major had been profound; some of his professors had come to look at him as more of a colleague than a student. His honors thesis focused on the relationship between teaching and learning, and how different styles can impact students. Sociology professor and department chair Kim Goyette, who advised him on his thesis, said Hazim’s writing was “probably beyond any undergraduate student I’ve seen at Temple” in her 18 years.

He began questioning texts he read, asking what they meant for the reality he lived. He became perplexed about inequalities among schools, the very thing that drove his mother to lie about their address so he could attend a better one.

“It’s not a testament to the ability of the students at these schools if they’re performing at a certain level,” he said, but rather reflective of the lack of resources and conditions they must learn under.

Nor is it an indictment of his school or neighborhood.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my community except the foot on its neck,” he said. “I don’t think my community needs a savior. I think they need resources.”

Hazim graduated in May 2017.

Seven Temple professors and one of his internship supervisors wrote recommendations for him to join the next Rhodes class. The list included the late John Raines, the famed whistle-blower who with others broke into an FBI office in Media in 1971 and stole documents showing that the government was spying on citizens and Vietnam War protesters.

“Hazim Hardeman is the most unusual student I have been privileged to teach in the more than 50 years at Temple University,” Raines wrote. He called him “an organic public intellectual in the making,” and praised how the homegrown North Philly student spoke in a direct, distinct, and memorable way to his mostly white and relatively privileged classmates and professor.

“His became the voice we needed to hear,” Raines wrote, "but would not have heard without him.”

On Nov. 19, 2017, Hazim was named a Rhodes scholar.

Historic victory

It had been about six months since Hazim earned the coveted scholarship. He already had been honored by City Council and the state legislature. There were speaking engagements and media appearances.

The author of Tyrell, the book that was so meaningful to Hazim as a teen, reached out to him on Twitter. Major African American scholars, including Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson and University of Pennsylvania dean John L. Jackson Jr., had sent congratulations.

He was named one of the Philadelphia Tribune’s 10 people under 40 to watch. Childhood friends who had become parents told him: “You represent a possibility for my child.”

In an odd twist, he even was invited to speak to Dobbins graduates, which he found funny, given his hall-walking days.

But no appearance mattered as much to him as this May morning, when he sat on stage at Temple’s Liacouras Center. It was graduation day for Community College of Philadelphia. Three years earlier, Hazim had sat in the audience as a new graduate; on this day he was CCP’s commencement speaker.

“We have a rock star among us, ladies and gentleman,” college president Donald “Guy” Generals boomed. “At community college, he found his voice, and now he’s going to change the world.”

Sitting in the balcony, Hazim’s mother leaped to her feet.

“Go, son,” she yelled, as the crowd erupted in applause. “Oh my God, my heart is beating.... Yes, son, yes!”

When Hazim had shown her the 3,488 miles between Oxford, England, and Philadelphia on a map, the 56-year-old had teared up. But now she couldn’t be prouder of her son, in black cap and gown, his white sneakers gleaming as he, the community college’s first Rhodes scholar, stepped to the lectern.

“There’s a particular lure to being the first,” Hazim told graduates, "the stroke of the ego, the feeling that you’ve been able to accomplish something that others before you couldn’t. But ... never mistake our being first for being the first that were worthy.

“So as you take the next steps in your journey,” Hazim continued, “I want you along the way to consider your path as possibility, not only in your thoughts but in your actions, which means, as you walk through doors don’t close them behind you, leave them open for the next person to walk through, and for the person after them to tear them down.”

It didn’t take long for Hazim to find out who got shot in his neighborhood on that September day. It was another childhood friend — a close one, he said, one who “always tells me I’m his favorite person in the world.”

His friend had survived, but landed in critical condition at Temple University Hospital.

Hazim was off to Oxford.