For homeless college students, each day brings tests of will

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lots of college students have special tricks to help them get through these next few weeks of finals. Red Bull, coffee amped up with espresso shots, secret study spots . . .

Ronnell Wilson has learned that this is the time to be extra careful about his backpack. Right before midterms, he lost all of his class work when someone at the shelter swiped his backpack as he slept.

Miracle Lewis front-loads all of her presentations and reports early in the semester, always volunteering to go first and turning her projects in early. All she has left now are final exams in statistics and professional ethics.

She knows that pulling an all-nighter in a room with two dozen women sleeping on their emergency beds is not something she can easily pull off, so she studies during the day.

Lewis and Wilson are both in their 20s, both college students and both homeless.

Their stories are remarkable and humbling in so many ways. They shatter our assumptions about who is homeless, and they put so many of our daily struggles in stark perspective.

Neither wanted a picture in the paper. Few of their friends know they are homeless, and not all of their professors know. But they agreed to tell their stories, partly because I kept bugging them, mostly because they want others who are like them to know they are not alone.

For both, getting to the front steps of a college was a remarkable act in the first place.

Lewis, 26, was an infant when she and her four older siblings were sent to foster homes near her dysfunctional mother in Wisconsin.

She watched as other siblings were adopted. All of them except her -- bookish, quiet, an entire childhood lived as a ward of the state. "All I ever wanted was a place to stay and someone called Mom," she told me, almost matter-of-factly, as though she was telling someone else's story and not her own.

She got a scholarship to a university in Iowa, where she played on the soccer team and did well in her biology classes.

She left school halfway through her degree to become a flight attendant. Based in Dulles, she flew for United Airlines, seeing places she'd only dreamed of.

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