Alicia Wilson grew up in struggling East Baltimore. She attended Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, where a tiny fraction of students pass statewide math tests and where very few go on to college. One of her high school friends was shot and killed last year.
And all things considered, she couldn't feel more fortunate.
The way Wilson sees it, she's lucky just to have had supportive parents, food on her plate and the chance to go to school -- any school at all. It's an attitude that has propelled her to stardom at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she has become a leader in a global activist organization and where she recently won a prestigious $30,000 Truman scholarship for law school.
"I have the feeling that even though I didn't grow up in the best neighborhood and even if I didn't attend a [high] school that's considered good by most standards, I'm still blessed, that we are all still blessed as Americans," said the 21-year-old political science major, who commutes to UMBC from her home near the demolished Hollander Ridge housing project at the eastern edge of the city.
"I've lived in East Baltimore, but I don't worry about not getting enough to eat," she adds. "My mother doesn't worry that her children will die of malnutrition."
If that sounds like a too-perfect statement of gratitude on the Thanksgiving weekend, rest assured: Wilson is too busy organizing fasts to be thinking up platitudes for her Thanksgiving feast. As the leader of UMBC's chapter of Oxfam America, the U.S. branch of the worldwide anti-poverty group, Wilson organized UMBC's third annual "hunger banquet" this month to build awareness of Third World deprivation.
At the banquet, held the same week as hundreds of similar Oxfam events across the country, the 200 participating students were randomly grouped into three classes of people.
The top class was seated by waiters at tables with linen tablecloths and served chicken florentine. The middle group was seated in chairs and served rice and beans. The lowest class was shoved to the floor and given rice.
The banquet is meant to drill home for students the inequities of food distribution around the world -- inequities Wilson describes at each banquet in a 15-minute address to the students. By the time she is done talking, she said, many of those sitting at the high-class tables can't bring themselves to eat.
(The event has a conventional charitable aim as well. Some students fasted for two days before the banquet, with sponsors giving money to food programs. The UMBC chapter has donated one ton of canned food to the Maryland Food Bank this year.)
Wilson's presentation of world hunger issues is so powerful that Oxfam America has flown her to Boston, Hartford, Conn., and Atlanta to lead hunger banquets. For the past two summers, she has helped coach other Oxfam youth leaders at an annual training session.
"She has this unique combination of being very intelligent and very humble," said Elizabeth Carty, Oxfam America's national outreach coordinator. "Her persona is so warm that people just like her."
It's little surprise that Wilson has become an activist -- her mother, a teacher in the Baltimore schools, was active in the civil rights movement, participating in sit-ins and marches in North Carolina. Both of Wilson's parents impressed on her the importance of helping others.
"They always told me that to live is to serve. It's not a choice, it's an obligation," she said. "They always taught me that disadvantages aren't crippling, that no matter how bad off we are, someone's always worse off."
Wilson got her start as a teen-ager working as an intern at Baltimore's Public Justice Center, where she helped lawyers defending Eastern Shore farmers, city residents in landlord-tenant disputes, and other needy clients.
But the horizons of Wilson's activism expanded after she arrived at UMBC on a full-tuition Sondheim Public Affairs Scholarship. In her freshman year, her adviser, political science professor Roy Meyers, nominated her for Oxfam's summer training week for youth leaders.
The session in Boston had a huge impact, Wilson says. For the first time, she was able to understand the urban woes she witnessed in Baltimore in a global context, and to recognize that other parts of the world faced even greater problems.
"I knew I had a vision, but I had never articulated it," she said. Through Oxfam "I was able to understand why I'm doing this and what it's all for."
Fired up, she returned to UMBC and infected others with her enthusiasm. She has organized hunger banquets, food drives, a panel on globalization, and letter-writing campaigns to Congress. She has also continued with local community service: she is a literacy tutor with the Learning Bank Adult Literacy Program and a peer counselor with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.
Wilson's background gives her an edge in her activism and community service, her mentors say. Unlike more affluent student activists, she is at ease in poor neighborhoods, and is motivated in her global activism not just by a sense of Western guilt but by her own experience.
"It's easier for her to understand poverty, rather than just intellectualizing it," said Meyers.
Wilson hopes to continue to combine local and global activism in a career in public-interest law. After winning the Truman scholarship -- awarded to students planning graduate study with an eye toward public service -- she is leaning toward law school at Yale or Georgetown.
Wilson's achievements have amazed faculty and administrators at UMBC. Her success, they say, shows that students from Baltimore public schools can thrive if they seek out the opportunities available to them.
"She has proven that it's possible to come from schools in an urban setting and be well-prepared," said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. "She has solid skills when she came and has grown since then."
Wilson agrees with this assessment, saying students can succeed at Mergenthaler, which she chose over other citywide schools such as City College, if they seek out the committed teachers who supported her. She had to wait two hours after school every day for her mother to pick her up, she said. She could seek extra help and become involved in clubs or "I would sit there for two hours."
Her determination to pursue opportunities only intensified after she became more aware, through Oxfam, of how much others in the world lack.
"If you think about it, I've had a good life. I could be a girl living in Senegal without a chance to have an education, but I'm here, with the ability to make a difference," she said. "If I don't, it's wrong."