How a homeless student found hope in the margins
Within one year, Solomon Muche went from homeless immigrant student to University of Washington freshman. His perseverance shows the importance of reaching out to vulnerable students, writes columnist Thanh Tan.
Times editorial columnist
Solomon Muche was at high risk of falling through the cracks of the state’s public education system.
Just two years ago, this skinny 17-year-old with an infectious smile arrived in Tukwila as a new immigrant from Ethiopia. He barely spoke English. Within months, his family was homeless. Solomon became one of the more than 30,000 Washington students last year without a steady place to sleep at night. For eight months, his family shuttled between shelters run by Mary's Place.
Homeless kids are more likely to drop out, and they often fall behind in the learning process by as much as six months every time they change schools.
Yet, Solomon found a way out.
This week, he begins college at the University of Washington. Standing behind him are mentors, teachers and counselors who saw his potential early on and acted.
I first heard Solomon’s story during The Seattle Times’ annual school-supply drive. At a backpack distribution event in the Columbia City neighborhood run by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, a Mary’s Place case manager’s face lit up when I asked her to tell me how providing school supplies has made a difference for her young clients.
I met Solomon last week in his family’s sparsely furnished apartment in a North Seattle transitional housing complex. His parents looked on with quiet dignity as their son recounted the embarrassment of missing his first homework assignment at Foster High School.
“I sat at the front, but I couldn’t understand the teacher,” he says with a still-heavy accent.
Resolving never to feel unprepared again, Solomon learned to study and wrote down questions in the margins of donated notebooks. In the summer before his senior year, he used those tools to teach himself pre-calculus to prepare for Advanced Placement calculus.
“He created that opportunity by talking to the teacher and saying he really wanted to do this,” remembers his former counselor, Laura Linde.
Solomon also learned to ask for letters of recommendation for scholarships and college applications.
Even as Solomon got ahead academically, his home life was a mess. When government programs for new immigrant families expired, his family had nowhere to go. He studied in shelters, seeking light wherever he could between tents occupied by others battling homelessness, mental illness and sometimes drug addiction.
There were moments of despair, peppered with opportunities.
“We had doctors and scientists visit” the shelter, he recalls. “Whenever they came, I’d sit and ask them questions.”
The more adults around him recognized his gift for learning, the more they knew they had to do something.
Elizabeth Stein, 23, first spotted Solomon collapsed over a textbook in the playroom at Mary’s Place in August 2013. The volunteer woke him up and found out he had been at Seattle Children’s Hospital the previous night, translating for his parents after his brother fell ill.
His eyes were bloodshot and he was exhausted.
“Almost immediately, I could just tell not only how brilliant he was, but what a fragile situation he was in,” Stein recalls. “He was commuting from a homeless shelter to Foster High School at five in the morning every day. And some days, he’d only have one meal — that was lunch provided by the school. And he had dreams of going to college.”
Stein took on Solomon as a mentee. The Brown University graduate shared with him her own college experiences. Later that fall, after Solomon transferred to Nathan Hale High School, the two worked together from a computer at the Seattle Public Library to submit his UW application online.
Not only was Solomon accepted, he was among about a dozen freshman directly admitted to the UW Bioengineering Undergraduate Program. He spent this past summer on campus doing undergraduate research.
Two days before his dorm move-in, I could see the weight of an entire family on Solomon’s shoulders. He has three little brothers watching his journey.
“I want to help my family,” he answered. “At the same time, I just want to learn science.”
There are many more kids like Solomon Muche, who yearn to be seen and to be shown what’s possible.
I urge all educators to brush up on the Coalition on Homelessness’ guide to understanding the McKinney-Vento Act, intended to ensure homeless children receive an education.
But there are other factors — a mentor’s time, kindness, a donated backpack — that can make all the difference, too.