When he was a homeless youth, Mark Bennett spent time in the University of Washington’s Odegaard Undergraduate Library to escape the cold weather. Now a junior at the UW, he visits the same library to study math.
Bennett took an unconventional route to a four-year university. But thanks to the support from the Washington MESA (Math, Science, Engineering and Mathematics) Community College Program and organizations like YouthCare, life is on the upswing for the 26-year-old single father. The journey to get here, however, has not been easy.
Originally from Renton, Wash., Bennett describes coming from a neglectful family and enduring some difficult teenage years. He wanted to join a gang at age 13, struggled with alcohol addiction and “threw away” anyone who wanted to hold him accountable for his actions.
“I burned all the bridges in my life,” he said.
At age 17, he became a father and dropped out of high school to live with his then-girlfriend and newborn son in Elma. However the relationship ended and addiction took over his life. At age 19, he was back in Seattle, homeless and at the lowest point of his life.
“I was destroyed,” he said. “I was alone. I was feeling insane because of the addiction. I couldn’t tell the difference between what was physically in front of me and going on in my head. Nobody wanted to be around me. I was full of anxiety, fear and all the things that go along with that.”
Bennett eventually sought help at YouthCare’s Orion Center in downtown Seattle. But in order for him to have a place to stay, he was required to change.
“There was no lying anymore because if you do lie to them, no one is going to help you,” he said. “Then I found out that maybe things would get better, so I started getting some hope. These people believed in me even when I was a mess.”
With the help of YouthCare and other organizations like the YMCA, Bennett got sober and went into recovery. He earned his high school diploma, enrolled at Seattle Central Community College, got off the streets, moved into transitional housing, squared away his legal records and gained custody of his son.
He also discovered that he liked math.
But when he started taking classes at Seattle Central he was still homeless and quite intimidated by the college atmosphere. He didn’t feel like he belonged there and struggled to find other students he could identify with. Then he learned about the Washington MESA Community College Program (WA MCCP).
WA MCCP provides academic advising, professional development, academic excellence workshops and transfer-support services to help underrepresented, first-generation and low-income community college students excel and ultimately attain bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields.
It currently serves over 350 students annually at six campuses throughout the state: Columbia Basin, Edmonds, Highline, Olympic, Seattle Central and Yakima Valley. Each campus center has a dedicated director, advising and faculty support. Program results feature a fall-to-fall persistence rate of 76 percent for MCCP students compared to 44 percent for non-MESA students.
MESA originally began as a pre-college program in 1970, but the need to serve the diverse STEM community college population prompted the beginnings of MCCP in 1991. It was successfully replicated in states like Washington. WA MCCP, established in 2009, is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation and administered by the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D).
Although NSF funding for the program ends in June, recent legislative efforts have yielded state funding for the 2014-15 academic year. Efforts to sustain the program into the next biennium are also underway.
“We are very excited about the program’s success rate, even more so now that the state has seen the positive results and will invest in this STEM community college transfer model,” said Verónica Guajardo, WA MCCP assistant director.
“The positive numbers speak for themselves, but the individual lives touched are what make this project so powerful,” she said. “MCCP is about access, equity and academic preparation. Yet it’s also about changing the landscape of STEM by helping our students’ dream of becoming an engineer or biologist, helping them craft a realistic and rigorous academic plan and following through with support, accountability and a gentle nudge. Well, sometimes it’s a firm push. Sometimes they can’t believe what we believe about their potential and can’t see what we see in them.”
When Bennett found MESA, he found a place to study and connect with students he could identify with. He spent time in the center for at least one hour per day, five days a week.
“We were all a little community,” he said. “We were having fun, but we were also talking about how we can do this. It became a real comfortable place for me to go to study and get away from all the noise that’s going on in school. A lot of the people in MESA I could relate to a lot more. Sometimes it’s just nice to see people from cultures that are similar to mine.”
MESA also provided an outlet for Bennett to learn some important life-skills such as making friendships and sustaining a social network, a task that proved difficult while struggling with addiction. When it came time to start thinking about the future, MESA was there to help him navigate the unknown and apply to four-year universities.
“MESA made things a lot more visible than they used to be,” Bennett said. “I wanted to be a math major, but I didn’t know which way to go, which direction or where to go. MESA did a good job of showing opportunities. They said ‘there is a ladder and here’s the ladder.’”
What followed was an acceptance letter to the UW and with it, a validation moment.
“It meant you do belong and you can be in academia, you can work hard and you can study,” he said.
A New Life
After receiving an associate’s degree in physics and mathematics, Bennett transferred to the UW last fall. He was excited about where life was going. He was excelling in class and focusing on his health by riding his bike to campus every day. Then two days before midterms on Oct. 28, his mother passed away unexpectedly. Bennett was struck with grief but called on his supports and didn’t miss class. In fact, he scored 100 percent on his linguistics exam the very next day.
“Even though we had this dysfunctional relationship, I know that my mom wouldn’t want me to use and lose everything that I have,” he said. “I remember that she would want me to continue to work hard. The thing is I’m just really committed to wanting to be a math major. I love math, I love studying, I love academia. I also love recovery and I love my family. I stay focused on these things.”
Bennett finished his first quarter at UW with two 4.0’s and a 3.9. He continues to study, ride his bike and model healthy living for his son. He is affiliated with OMA&D’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) that supports students in STEM and will participate in the UW Department of Mathematics’ Research Experience for Undergraduates program this summer. He has his sights set on becoming involved in the UW Math Club and the Ronald E. McNair Program in the future.
Bennett’s accomplishments and perseverance have not gone unnoticed. He was asked by Seattle Central to speak at his commencement ceremony on June 15, 2013, the four-year anniversary of his sobriety.
He also spoke at the 17th annual King County Mental Health and Substance Abuse Legislative Forum at Town Hall on Nov. 13. Last month, he shared his story with over 1,100 people at YouthCare’s Annual Luncheon at the Westin.
Bennett received a standing ovation at all three events. Surely a fourth will follow when he receives the Wells Fargo Vice President’s Achievement Award at OMA&D’s 44th annual EOP Celebration at the Husky Union Building on May 22.
Bennett continues to do the best he can and focus on the future. When things get tough, all he has to do is think about how grateful he is for his current situation.
“Nothing can be worse than where I was before,” he said.