After finishing his last class at Hillhouse High School, Joseph Marini navigated the O bus, university admissions office, online course schedule “Matrix,” and the shelves of the campus bookstore.
His found his way, just as he found his way from a homeless shelter to the high school honor roll—and to early admission as a full-time college student.
Joseph, who has been homeless throughout high school, is one of 15 New Haven public school seniors embarking this month on a new chapter as full-time students at the University of New Haven (UNH) though a scholarship program.
Joseph shared the tale of his remarkable journey the other day as he made final preparations on the eve of his first day of classes.
It is the tale of a resilient kid who worked hard and built relationships to create opportunities for himself that his parents never had. His story embodies what goes by the term “grit”—steadfast commitment to a goal that, emerging research shows, can be more important than sheer brainpower in helping kids lift out of poverty and succeed in school and life.
Joseph, who’s 18, spent his morning taking final exams at Hillhouse, where he’s on the honor roll. He hitched a ride on a school bus, then walked through the below-freezing air to the downtown Subway sandwich shop to pick up his paycheck. He subsequently walked to the New Haven Green to the Temple Street bus stop.
It was a familiar routine. For the past two years, he has gone straight from high school to one of two places: to work or to college. This past semester, Joseph took four classes at Hillhouse, and one class at UNH while working several seven-hour shifts at Subway, until 10:30 p.m. on some school nights.
Joseph is the sole breadwinner in his household at the moment. His dad is on disability; his mom is currently unemployed. His $200-a-week paychecks help pay the bills at his family’s makeshift home, a transitional housing complex on Winchester Avenue. His family landed there after living in a homeless shelter on Davenport Avenue during his freshman and sophomore years. His current apartment isn’t permanent: The family has permission to stay there only until March.
Joseph, a disarmingly warm, fast-talking teen brimming with ambition, tries not to focus on the instability of his housing.
“Me being in a shelter, I don’t let that stop me,” he said.
Joseph kept his housing situation a secret throughout most of high school. He didn’t want “sympathy votes” or to be judged for where he lives, he said.
Over the past year, he has started to tell his peers.
“I want to break that stereotype that homeless people are nobodies,” he said.
En route to UNH the other day, he hopped on the O bus, which heads out toward the Milford mall. When the bus went up the first steep hill in West Haven, Joseph pulled the cord to request the stop. He got out at the entrance to the university.
He already knew the best way across the busy road: First cross a side street, then double back on the zebra-striped path that runs kitty-corner to the front entrance.
Joseph got to know that that zig-zag path as he commuted to campus last semester through a “College Before College” program, which paid for him to take a communications class.
This time, Joseph was stepping onto campus as a full-time student. He was accepted to UNH’s Outstanding High School Senior Program, which allows high-performing seniors to enroll at UNH for free during the spring semester of high school.
On Wednesday, he steered towards the office of admissions counselor Monique Bolt to fix a scheduling problem.
On the the eve of the first day of classes, he had already secured spots in English composition, intermediate algebra and Western history. But he got wait-listed for sociology.
In Bolt’s office, he apologized for “bombarding” her with emails proposing possible ways to find a fourth class to fill out his schedule. He told her he wanted to find a sociology class. While his peers were looking forward to their final semester of high school, he was thinking several steps ahead. His long-term goal is to be a pharmacist. He aims to get a PhD. To accomplish that, he hopes to enroll at the University of Connecticut in the fall. Sociology is a prerequisite for the pharmacology major, so he wants to get it out of the way.
Joseph crossed his fingers as Bolt made a phone call to try to get him into Sociology 113, section 50.
She hung up with a smile on her face. “You’re all set.”
He pumped his fist.
“You’re a good egg,” Bolt (pictured) told him. She told him to call her cell phone anytime he needs help. And she signed him up for the first of a series of mandatory meetings with a support center for first-year students; those are part of the scholarship program’s efforts to make sure high-schoolers don’t fall through the cracks.
“I know you’ll be successful,” she said.
She said Joseph “stood out” out of the 36 students who applied for Outstanding High School Senior scholarships. “His interview was very touching. He even teared up,” she recalled.
She said he showed personal charm and humility as he told his life story.
Joseph grew up in Bridgeport, the middle child of five. He was raised by his stepdad, who’s from Puerto Rico, and his mom, who’s from Italy. He started working at age 11 in his grandmother’s shop, Luigi’s Italian Bakery. After a dispute between mom and grandma, his grandmother kicked the family out of her home.
In the middle of 8th grade, his family moved to Puerto Rico for seven months. When the family came back, he said, they were homeless. They found a spot in a shelter run by Christian Community Action on Davenport Avenue in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood.
It was a couple of months into the school year. The transition to high school was tough, he recalled.
“They threw me into Hillhouse,” mid-way through freshman year, he recalled. Despite his late transfer and living situation, Joseph landed on the honor roll freshman year. He found a “family” on a citywide tennis team. His sophomore year started out well, when he was named Mr. Sophomore and donned an honorary sash.
Then he suffered what he termed a “setback.”
“I was jumped” by three kids as he was heading home from Hillhouse one evening, just a block from the school. The kids punched him three times.
“They tried to rob me, but I had nothing to take,” Joseph recalled. He said the incident “shattered me.”
Joseph bounced back. He stayed on the honor roll. Junior year, he faced another hurdle when he got a MRSA infection in his knee. He missed a month and a half of school for surgery. He leaned on connections he had made with adults at Hillhouse to pull him through. One adult, school librarian Mary McMullen, dropped his homework by his house.
That year, despite missing weeks of school, he managed to make National Honors Society and National Spanish Honors Society.
“Life has its ups and downs,” he reasoned. “I don’t want to let my setbacks stop me from being who I am.”
Despite the uncertainty of his housing situation, he has always stuck together with his parents and two younger siblings. Tough times have helped them grow close. Though neither of his parents went to college, they raised him with the expectation that he would. He ran with it, taking a class at Southern Connecticut State University his junior year. He said he felt “intimidated” at first among the older students. When he got there, he couldn’t find his classroom lecture hall. But he didn’t want to ask any students. So he hung around until he found an adult to ask and found his way to the basement.
Once he found his way, he thrived.
“College is amazing,” he said. “The atmosphere, the attitude, the maturity.”
From all that he’s been through, Joseph has grown up fast, he said. “People think I’m 21.” The college environment felt like a good fit. He ended up getting an A in his first course, school health. He said he has not relied on a single adult mentor to help him along.
“I just did this on my own,” he said.
In his interview at UNH, Bolt asked him to name his favorite book.
“Have you seen Homeless to Harvard?” he asked, referring to the Emmy-nominated movie about the daughter of drug-addicted parents who makes it to the Ivy League. The movie is based on a true story recounted in a book, Breaking Night.
That’s me, Joseph said. His story, he said, will be “Homeless to UConn.”
In the absence of older siblings or immediate role models who went to college, Joseph relied on a knack for connecting with people to help him navigate an unfamiliar world.
After leaving Bolt’s office, he headed to the campus library to print out his course schedule. He sat down and typed his screen name into the online course information system called the Matrix—one of the many little logistical hurdles that can seem daunting to incoming students.
Joseph moved deftly through the system to check out his new sociology course. He said he learned to use the computer system from a coworker at Subway, a graduate student at UNH. Those Subway coworkers, many of whom attended UNH, have proved helpful over the past two years, he said. He has spent so much time at the sandwich shop that the crew has become like “a family,” with Joseph as its youngest member.
He pulled up his schedule and commanded the computer to print. He knew where the printer was, he said, not by asking—he’s shy, at times—but by observing other students.
“When I’m in a new place, I watch people,” he said.
After printing off his schedule, Joseph announced the next destination in the pre-college obstacle course: the campus bookstore.
“Let’s do some shopping,” he cheerfully declared.
He walked back across campus at a brisk pace that he keeps up for most of his daily life. He’s always on the go; He works and studies so much that he rarely spends time at home. He once went two weeks without seeing his dad because his dad is often asleep when he gets home from work. When he doesn’t have to work, attend class or do homework, he said, he feels restless.
Joseph said he didn’t need to buy his books before class starts—it’s better to wait until the professor confirms the purchase is necessary. But he wanted to check out the prices. Using the course numbers on his schedule, he searched the shelves for his English composition course. He found only four used copies of the main text, Writing Arguments. Used copies were $47.70 each, a major markdown from the new volumes.
He snatched one off the shelf to ensure he got the deal.
For other classes, he copied down the prices, which he planned to compare on used book websites like Chegg.com.
“It’s like bargain shopping,” he explained.
At the register, he pulled out a bank card to pay for the book. This semester, he took advantage of the biggest bargain price—renting the book. He couldn’t do that last semester, he explained, because he didn’t have a bank account. So he went downtown and opened one. He didn’t ask for help.
“I like to do things on my own,” he explained.
When it came time to head back downtown, he headed downhill, through an academic building, taking the shortcut to the bus stop. The B bus comes more frequently than the O, which travels all the way from the mall.
He took the B to Subway, where he had to talk to his boss about changing his work schedule to accommodate the new sociology course. His boss, owner Yon Byun, has become a mother figure to him over the past two years. She had been holding the work schedule open until Joseph got his classes settled.
She welcomed him from behind the counter. She told a reporter she counts herself among the many adults who feel proud of Joseph’s journey.
“He’s amazing,” she said. “I have goosebumps.”
Reached by phone, Joseph’s principal, Kermit Carolina, said Joseph has risen to a serious challenge: “His family is relying on him to be the savior, the person who can change the conditions in the household through education.
“He understands the power of education. ... That education is the gateway out of poverty and any challenge that’s going on in your life.”
“I have the utmost respect for him because of his perseverance and his drive to succeed in everything he’s done,” Carolina said.
Even as he launches his first semester as a full-time college student, Joseph faces another hurdle: In March, he and his family have to leave their transitional housing complex. They haven’t yet figured out where they’ll move.
“I try not to think about that,” Joseph said. “I try to keep moving on.”
Joseph hasn’t quite figured out how he’ll pay for college. He’s applying for a New Haven Promise scholarship. Because he attended New Haven schools for only four years, the program will pay up to half of tuition at in-state colleges or universities. At UConn, his dream school, he’d still have to find a way to pay $7,000 in tuition and fees as a commuter student; plus another $11,000 if he wants to board.
“I’m trying to save up,” he said, but most of his Subway paychecks have been going to pay his family’s bills.
Meanwhile, he’s focusing on getting through the first semester at UNH.
“I’m just going to go in there with my mind set on getting an A,” he said.
He said he tries to urge his peers, and the young kids at his supportive housing complex, to set their sights high as well.
“I’m just a simple nobody coming up in homelessness making something out of my life,” he said. “I’m like that underdog and I’m becoming top dog.”
“If I inspire just one person—I don’t care who it is, any age—to make a difference, my goal is achieved.”