After nearly dropping out of high school, Malik James-Gaskin knew it wouldn’t be easy to get into college.
A graduate from one of the city’s alternative schools, he spent the last year still trying to fight his way in.
The other day, after a year of rejections, death and doubts, he toured the four-year private college to which he’ll be matriculating at the end of the summer.
“He is an example to other students here at New Horizons who are still in touch with him,” said Maureen Bransfield, the school principal. “We are very proud of him.”
Malik had once been a popular football player with good grades at Hillhouse High School. “Everything he touched was remarkable,” his mom Brenda Gaskin remembered.
But junior year, he nearly dropped out of New Haven’s public schools. The West River teen had been unable to cope with the murder of best friend and classmate Jacob Craggett, who was gunned down in August 2014 while sitting in a car in the Hill.
Gaskin changed her work schedule to make sure Malik got on the bus, but he still found ways to ditch. His teachers stopped calling home about his failing scores. After one teacher said she didn’t think he’d make it past his 18th birthday, Malik stopped showing up altogether.
He suffered from depression and anxiety attacks. After one breakdown, he was hospitalized.
“This kid, I didn’t even know who he was,” Gaskin said. “He stayed to himself. He was very isolated and didn’t talk anymore. He just shut down completely. I don’t know, he seemed like he even hated me.”
Then Malik entered New Horizons High School, one of the city’s three alternative schools. A guidance counselor told him it would be “nearly impossible” to make up all the classes he missed.
At his graduation last spring, just hours after barely passing his final test, Malik shared all he had been through. In a speech that left the room in tears, he credited the alternative school for saving his life. (Read about that here.)
Getting into college would be another ordeal.
Malik knew his academic record limited his options. He’d dropped out of Hillhouse High School, failing all his classes that quarter. Even with higher marks at New Horizons, he’d barely made a C average.
Two Pennsylvania colleges turned Malik down this spring.
Dickinson College, a selective liberal arts school that had inundated him with brochures all year, also sent him a rejection letter in the mail.
After that, a close family friend died in a motorcycle accident. Some nights, Malik woke up and heard his mom crying to herself. At the funeral, he stood at the casket and vowed that he’d one day play college football, like the father figure had always encouraged him to do.
Then, Chestnut Hill College, a Catholic school in Philly, rejected Malik in an email. He deleted it immediately.
“I hated the fact that I was getting declined. They didn’t know who I was personally. They were going off a transcript,” he said. “I knew I made mistakes. I messed up. Why should people judge me on what happened two years ago?”
Malik put off college and started worrying about getting a job. He got a gig with Liberty Energy, knocking on doors to pitch homeowners on switching utility providers. He was paid by commission, $30 per sale. His best week, after working six full days, he made $330.
Gaskin started to worry that her son wouldn’t end up applying anywhere else. Even if he did the following year, she didn’t know how he’d explain being out of school for two years.
Malik had begun working on one last application for Keystone College, a small school outside Scranton. He drafted an essay about his experience adjusting to New Horizons, but he couldn’t bring himself to send it off.
“If I get declined again, it would be a confidence breaker,” he said.
After the deadline passed, the school’s football coach called and asked him to finish up. A counselor at New Horizons helped Malik gather the rest of his application materials, and he sent it off.
In a phone call, Malik told Keystone’s admissions officers that New Horizons had taken a chance on him that had paid off. He worked hard to catch up on the classes he’d missed at Hillhouse, and he graduated on time with only five other classmates.
“It has always been my dream to be in college, and I lost sight of that,” he told them. This time, “I won’t disappoint.”
Keystone let him in. The school offered a financial-aid package, setting tuition at $4,000 a semester. If he keeps his grades up, he could have a full ride for the next three years, they promised.
“He’s an inspirational young man,” said Fran Calpin, a spokesman for the college.
Malik sometimes thinks about the options he might’ve had if he stayed at Hillhouse. He used to dream of getting into Yale, a mile straight down Chapel Street from his mom’s apartment.
Keystone has a 42 percent graduation rate, right in line with the national median. A decade after graduation, the median salary for an alumnus who received financial aid is $29,900, according to federal data.
Malik said that the school’s size — 1,410 undergrads, smaller even than Wilbur Cross — will be perfect for him. Last weekend, during a welcome event for admitted students, he took the campus tour four times. “Everything was beautiful,” he said.
After bottoming out during his junior year, Malik said he feels better prepared to handle adversity.
“I try to be realistic and prepare for things. That’s the biggest difference between me back then and who I am now,” he said. “Everything I went through, with missing school and being hospitalized and graduating.“
“And being rebellious,” mom added.
“That too. I’ve already been through so much,” he said. “I feel like I’m better prepared than any freshman.”
Gaskin is already heart-sick that her youngest son is leaving. She jokes that he’s heading out of state to get away from her. But she knows that isn’t true. He’s leaving because he wants to start over.
“It was a struggle for me as a parent. Me and him, we’re close together, real tight-knit. And now I’m losing him to go to a school. I didn’t support him like I wanted to until I told myself, ‘Brenda, you have to think of him. I know that you are being a mom right now. You’re the best mom you can be, and to be that is not to be selfish,’” she said. “Let him just develop into a good man and get an education. If I keep him from where he wants to go, he’ll resent me.
“I’m just proud of him, from his downfall to picking himself up, more and more,” she said. “He didn’t get set back with the rejections. He stayed strong, stayed focused.”
Gaskin, who dropped out of college to raise her kids, said she’s also planning to re-enroll and finish her degree while Malik is gone. She made her son promise to FaceTime her and steer clear of booze on the dry campus.
She still can’t imagine what it’s going to be like to wave goodbye in late August. Malik can’t wait.