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Originally published Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at 5:11 PM

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Passing potential on, from one homeless student to another

University of Washington freshman Solomon Muche returned to the homeless shelter that once helped him, proving every child needs someone to believe in their potential.


Times editorial columnist

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Solomon Muche exemplifies the sort of potential that can be realized when bright-minded students in trying circumstances are noticed and given the opportunity to shine.

I wrote about this remarkable young immigrant last fall. Solomon and his family were homeless within months of their 2012 arrival in Tukwila from Ethiopia. Despite moving with his parents and three little brothers from church to church for nearly a year, the precocious 17-year-old graduated high school with excellent grades and was accepted directly into the University of Washington’s bioengineering program.

I’d been curious how his freshman year was going when I received an email over the holidays from Mary’s Place executive director, Marty Hartman. She wrote that he had returned to the shelter during his winter break — not to stay, but to volunteer. I went to hear him speak to other homeless children on New Year’s Eve.

As a dozen kids filed into a conference room that day, Solomon gave me a quick progress report. He took 18 credits this past semester and did well. Not only is he learning to live on his own and balancing classes, he has even taken up cooking.

Hartman sounded like a proud mother when she let it slip that Solomon is also one of three UW students recently selected to present his undergraduate research next month at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM in Washington, D.C.

He did not boast about these latest accomplishments in his remarks. Instead, Solomon reminded his peers that he had walked in their shoes. He understood what it was like to leave the shelter each day at 5 a.m. to commute between downtown Seattle and Foster High School in South King County. He received donated clothing, school supplies and food. He loved participating in sports and summer camp — anything to distract him from his family’s struggles.

“Picture yourself, where you want to be and how you’ll get there,” he said to the group. “If you just sit and think ‘it’s bad,’ Better to find something to help you.”

At first, hardly any of the kids, between the ages of 10 and 21, looked him in the eye. Then one girl piped up: “Oh wait, so you graduated high school from here?”

“There’s a lot of opportunities here to support your dreams,” he assured her. “You just have to ask.”

Solomon described how he sought advice from shelter volunteers, many of them professionals in science and business. One mentor helped him apply to 12 colleges. Another chance meeting led to an internship at the Museum of Flight.

After some prodding, the students voiced their own hopes of becoming nurses, police officers and Navy SEALs. Their faces belied fear and doubt. Several of them admitted they were embarrassed to be homeless.

Children occupy about 95 of the nearly 170 beds at five Mary’s Place locations. Every morning, students are sent to 14 different school districts. Throughout King County, an estimated 5,000 youths experience homelessness each year. Their daily existence is about survival. Uncertainty often follows them into adulthood.

Solomon’s incredible resilience makes him an exception, but he says he would not be in college today without guidance and encouragement by strangers who showed him what’s possible.

Before catching a bus back to UW, he pulled out his smartphone and created a Facebook group. He passed it around and friended everyone in the room.

“Let’s keep in touch. If I can't help you, I can help you connect with somebody else,” he promised.

It was a small gesture. But for these kids, searching for someone to believe in them, it was a memorable one.

Thanh Tan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is ttan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @TanInSeattle.



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