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For homeless college students, each day brings tests of will

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, December 8, 2009; B01

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.

But the thing she loved most about the job was being put in charge of an unaccompanied minor.

"It was usually a divorce issue, and the child would come on the plane, sad because they just left one parent," she said. For those few hours, she was the adult taking care of them, comforting them, meeting their needs.

In the conversations I've had with Lewis, this was the only time I'd seen her lose it. She sobbed when she talked about the children alone in the sky and the impact those flight-time bondings had on her.

When airline budget cuts whacked many of her colleagues last year, Lewis knew she had to come back to earth and finish her degree.

She got a good scholarship from Catholic University to study business, a temp job doing office work, and began to finish her schooling.

But the temp agency jobs dried up early this year, and she learned she was pregnant.

"The other students in my classes, if they have hard times, they just call their parents. I can't do that," Lewis said.

She wound up at Calvary Women's Shelter in Northwest Washington, one of many area shelters experiencing a surge in demand from people battered by the economy. At Calvary, Lewis's locker is full of baby items that folks have donated to her. She plans to continue classes in the spring and wants to graduate in May.

"I want my daughter there when I graduate. And I want her to see me get a master's degree," she said. "Most of all, I want her to have a mom."

Like Lewis, Wilson, who's 28, doesn't like to dwell on how hard things are for him.

He grew up in Norfolk, one of five boys who never knew a father. "He was incarcerated when I was 10 months old," he told me.

All of his brothers have done hard time for drugs or gang activity, he said. He did 15 days in jail once for fighting, but he's worked as a forklift operator and a cook. "I'm going to be the one who doesn't go to prison," Wilson said.

He began taking community college classes in Norfolk and did well. Then he moved to the District and got a job as a cook at California Pizza Kitchen. He worked nights and took hotel and restaurant management classes at the University of the District of Columbia during the day.

He considers college "a way out, a new beginning, it was everything to me."

Then he was laid off from the restaurant in January and the bottom fell out.

He went back home. It didn't last long. He returned to the District in June and bounced between shelters downtown and on the campus of St. Elizabeths, determined "to finish school . . . make it work, no matter what," he said.

It hasn't been easy. He had to drop two classes that were late in the day because he'd finish too late to get a bed at the shelter.

And sometimes, even if he got the bed, he'd be up until 4 a.m. because the mentally ill man next to him shouted at invisible demons all night long. Or there would be a fight. Or they'd yell at him and tease him for studying.

"It's a prison mentality in some of those shelters," he told me.

"And on those days, I think: $30. All it takes is $30 for a bus ticket home, and I got family to stay with, and I can have my old life back," he tells me. "But that's not the life I want."

It's easy to associate Wilson and Lewis with all kinds of social ills: homelessness, unemployment, child neglect or unwed motherhood.

I think we should simply call them amazing.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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