College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Merry Christmas, Ramone. You Represent Hope in a Seriously Messed-Up Education Nation.

By Nancy Flanagan — December 23, 2015 2 min read
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It’s a touching and gut-wrenching story, well-told. Ramone Williams, 26, of Flint, Michigan (yes--that Flint, Michigan) is living out of his aging mini-van, because he can’t afford both tuition and a place to live. He sleeps in Eastern Michigan University’s computer lab, when it’s cold. He agonizes over whether to spend $4.00 on a Wendy’s lunch. And he’s carrying a solid GPA, on track to graduate, after years of community college, Pell grants, and dropping out to care for the grandmother who raised him.

In fact, it’s the kind of story that causes people to open their hearts and wallets to a deserving stranger. A GoFundMe account for Ramone Williams has overshot its $10,000 goal (enough to find him a home and meals for his final semesters, and give him a head start on repaying the $10K he owes in student loans). More than $25,000 dollars has been donated. Merry Christmas, Ramone. Go see your grandma, tell her the good news. Virtue is--sometimes, anyway--its own reward.

The most heart-cracking passage in this tale:

Williams is far from alone. With colleges not required to identify and track homeless students on their campuses, the federal financial aid form (FAFSA) provides the only indication of the scope of the problem. About 56,000 students nationally checked a box on the FAFSA indicating they are homeless. "We think there are a lot more," said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, a national advocacy organization for homeless students. "Many are embarrassed to admit it or don't think they're homeless because they haven't stayed in a homeless shelter. A lot are staying in cars or sleeping in libraries." They're the most invisible of vulnerable groups on campus, said Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives for the same organization. Williams tries to keep it that way, avoiding drawing attention to what he calls "my situation." He thinks fewer than 10 people at the university, staff and students combined, know he is homeless. "I don't want to be a distraction," Williams said. "I feel like if I were to tell someone higher up, it might be detrimental to the school, for them to have knowledge that someone is homeless going to their school. Maybe it's against the rules or something. Maybe I'd get in trouble."

How can we live in a nation where someone like Ramone Williams doesn’t want to be a “distraction” to his fellow scholars? Where Michigan is hailed as a leader in providing services for homeless students, and those who are pursuing a college education after being raised in foster care? Where campuses find it necessary to provide guidance in filling out the required FAFSA form to students who have no address, let alone accurate tax records?

It’s gratifying to read about all the families who offered Ramone a safe, warm place to stay over the holidays--and to think that, temporarily, he has enough money to finish a college degree and launch his adult life. But what about the other 56,000 students patching together their holiday “vacation” around donated food and temporary shelters--are they also trying to avoid being a distraction to the American academic conscience? Aren’t we supposed to be Education Nation?

Ramone’s narrative is layered with ironies and deep questions about what it means to be well-educated, about the value of a university degree. His university, EMU, recently voted to continue, at least for a time, supporting Michigan’s utterly failed Education Achievement Authority (EAA) school “district”-- the government initiative that, rhetorically only, offers “opportunity” to students whose neighborhood public schools reflect the kids in poverty who attend them. And his home city, under the “leadership” of an emergency manager sent by his governor, knowingly poisoned its citizens.

Ramone Williams’ college degree will be no guarantee of a good job, as it might have been two generations ago. And institutions like his--a regional public university, once the mainstay for educating a growing middle class--were recently belittled as the perfect fit for minorities and other academic lesser lights by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

And yet--here he is, doggedly determined to do his grandmother proud, to take his place as productive, educated citizen. The light glowing at the center of this story is not charity, “grit” or “achievement"--it is love, persistence and faith. You go, Ramone.

Wishing all readers of Teacher in a Strange Land a peaceful, meaningful holiday.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.