From Homelessness to Sky-high Dreams
Bruce, a freshman at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, has his head in the clouds and his feet planted firmly on the ground. The former Covenant House New York resident is working hard toward a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s, and then a career as a pilot in the Navy.
“I love aviation,” Bruce says, eyes bright. “Ever since I was little, I used to go to air shows and play on flight simulators. I love looking up into the sky, hearing jets go by. Aviation really motivates me to move forward.”
And moving forward he is. Bruce’s “true goal” to become a Navy pilot is buoyed by a well-considered back-up plan based in computer science and business. He intends to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years at the college’s sprawling campus on New York City’s outer edge.
As his first semester draws to a close, his biggest worries are the usual freshman conundrums: roommates and living on a student budget.
But that wasn’t the case just a couple of years ago, when Bruce looked into the abyss of homelessness. College was nowhere on his horizon. His most pressing concern wasn’t an unruly roommate but food and shelter.
Doing the Right Thing
Bruce had done everything right.
After his parents’ divorce, he grew up mainly with his mother, moving with her from state to state as her career required. By the time he was 18, he’d lived in half a dozen states.
Bruce graduated from John McDonogh Senior High School—the subject of Oprah Winfrey’s “Blackboard Wars” TV series—in a tough section of New Orleans, La. “People judged the school because the area was terrible, but the school was actually great,” he says. He served as treasurer and then vice president of his class.
But for Bruce post-Katrina New Orleans seemed a dead end. “I couldn’t see how I could live there,” he says. He felt his options for making a good living were limited, and he was distressed by the slow pace of infrastructure repair in the many years since the 2005 super storm. “I felt like I was drowning,” he says.
He left New Orleans for New York City, where an aunt agreed to take in the 18-year-old. He quickly landed a paid internship at a Bronx courthouse near Yankee Stadium, where he learned about the court system, ran errands, and filed papers. He was happy and productive.
Nowhere to Go
But suddenly, Bruce’s aunt became suspicious of him. She accused him of doing or dealing drugs. When he took a drug test to prove her wrong, she refused to accept the result. “I was shocked,” he recalls. “I told her, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be happy that I’m not doing drugs? Why are you being like this?’
Then one day in mid-December, Bruce’s aunt threw him out of the house. It was the worst possible time, as the air turned cold and the nights turned long. “I guess she didn’t really like me. I thought she did because she was family,” Bruce says. “I didn’t have anywhere to go.”
A coworker at the courthouse told Bruce about Covenant House, and he decided it was his only way to avoid the bitter streets. He had no idea what to expect, and he was afraid.
“I thought I was going to just sit there and be depressed. I thought it was going to be horrible, that I would get into fights,” he says. “I never really suspected it would be a grateful place to be—where a young person like me could get their bearings straight. But when people started opening up to me, I started to see a whole different world.”
Getting His Bearings
It took time for Bruce to get past his aunt’s rejection. “When I came to Covenant House, I was in a very dark place,” he says. He took extremely long walks, from Midtown Manhattan to the Bronx, “just so I could get that anxiety out of me. It’s hard to get straight on your goals when you have a lot of stuff on your mind.”
Eventually, he lost the job at the courthouse, but the staff at Covenant House was there to catch him. “My caseworker, Roberto, helped me get back on my feet because he pushed me forward. And people like the RAs [resident assistants], and Brian, another staff person, they pushed you to get up in the morning, to go get a job. And they would just find ways to make you happy, with trips to Six Flags or ice skating,” he says.
Bruce was accepted into Covenant House’s Rights of Passage program, where he focused on acquiring the skills he needed for independent living. Then he began to reimagine the path to college and his “true goal.”
Mott Street Scholars
Bruce was accepted to two colleges, but the College of Mount Saint Vincent, through its Mott Street Scholarship program, offered him the comprehensive means he needed to reach his dreams.
The program completely covers students’ tuition and provides them with a laptop computer and year-round room and board, thus allaying students’ fears of becoming homeless again when school is not in session. The total cost of tuition, room/board, and fees covered by the program surpasses $45,000 a year.
“It’s definitely part of the mission and commitment of the college and the tradition of the Sisters of Charity—the college’s founders—who have two centuries of dedication to reaching out and educating people from all corners of society,” says Dean of Students Lynne Bongiovanni.
“The program is named after the first orphanage the sisters established, on Mott and Prince streets in Lower Manhattan,” adds Cia Kessler, director of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunities Program (HEOP) at the school. HEOP is a New York State scholarship program for disadvantaged students.
Most of the Covenant House students receive the benefit of the HEOP scholarship, Kessler indicates. “But as Mott Street Scholars they get this additional piece that allows them to live year-round on campus and the choice to participate in some of the other advantages of typical students, from study abroad to summer and winter classes.”
Covenant House partnered with Mount Saint Vincent in 2015, and today there are 14 former residents among a total of 20 Mott Street Scholars. They include one senior, five juniors, three sophomores, and five freshmen.
The first Mott Street Scholar on track to graduate with honors this spring. “We want to help her get the best start she can after she leaves us, so we’re really thinking about how we can best serve her as she prepares to take on the world beyond college,” the dean says of the program’s newest challenge.
A Mutual Gift
The Mott Street Scholars program is a life-changing gift for students like Bruce, but for Bongiovanni and Kessler, the gift goes both ways. “We get as much from this program as we give,” Bongiovanni says.
“Students like Bruce bring a wealth of compassion and insight, and they inspire us to be better,” says Kessler, who also teaches English. She recalled how one of her Covenant House students ran into the classroom on the first day of the semester and hugged her, so happy was the student to be in school.
And she also recalled how a group of Mott Street Scholars came to the aid of a student who learned during class that her grandfather had suddenly died. “They gravitated to her, took her to lunch, and followed up with her to make sure she was alright,” Kessler recalls. “They’re a gift to us.”
“It means a lot to be able to study here,” Bruce shares. “I’m grateful for the scholarship opportunity. I just want to say thank you. I’m getting my bearings straight and focusing on my true goal.”
When asked what advice he would give to a young person facing homelessness and the trials and achievements he has known, Bruce replies, “Never give up your hopes and dreams. Even though life is hard, it’s really a rollercoaster. Always keep a positive outlook on life instead of seeing just the negative.”
And, he says, “Always look up.”