HARTFORD — DeShawn Hamlet spent the final weeks of summer searching for jobs and preparing himself for a Plan B — putting his college education on hold.
Hamlet was the big man at Bulkeley High School, a 6-foot-3 power forward who led the underdog Bulldogs to a Class L state basketball title in 2009. He struggled academically but graduated in 2010, landing at a small Division III college in rural Vermont.
Four years later, after starts and stops, the 23-year-old looks to begin his junior year at Southern Vermont College, where he has played basketball for the Mountaineers.
But a hitch in the plans has led to a fundraising flurry: a past due bill of $3,000 that Hamlet must settle before he can receive the college's financial aid package for the fall, he said.
Former State Board of Education member Andrea Comer and others from Hartford have donated $2,250 to his cause in recent days. Late Thursday afternoon, Hamlet needed about $750 to finish paying off the debt before classes start next week.
By Friday morning, after a story about Hamlet was published on Courant.com, supporters had donated the rest of the money.
Hamlet doesn't dispute the bill. He said he loves his small-town private college among the rolling green hills of southwestern Vermont — a different world from the grittiness of Hartford, where he grew up in the Nelton Court housing project and witnessed drug deals and shootouts as a child.
"He fell in love with Vermont; he wants me to move out there," said his mother, Mary Hamlet, a single parent who works as a teacher's assistant in Hartford. "I said, 'DeShawn, I'm a city girl.' "
"But I tell you," she added, the past few weeks have been "driving me crazy ... I'm stuck in a hole."
DeShawn and Mary Hamlet said they did not anticipate it would be this difficult to pay the $3,000, an amount that may seem miniscule in higher education but is overwhelming to them. DeShawn, a sports management major, said he made some money working at summer basketball camps, but it wasn't much.
Lenders rejected their requests for loans, they said. Mary Hamlet concedes that her credit is poor, and that she doesn't feel comfortable asking relatives to co-sign for a loan: "I'm just trying to do it myself," she said.
The Financial Gap
College officials said student privacy laws prevent them from talking about DeShawn Hamlet's case. But generally, Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross said, the "financial gap" that Hamlet and other low-income students face "is one of the major problems in higher education today."
The gap is the money not covered by federal Pell grants, loans, college scholarships or need-based grants that may be included in a student's financial aid. "Many fiscally vulnerable students either can't get loans in their own name, or they can't get loans without a co-signer," said Gross, who has written about student debt. "And that's some government loans and some private loans."
Those students end up in "a Catch-22 — they can't borrow because they don't have qualified co-signers, but they would benefit from a four-year degree in terms of their career and livelihood," Gross continued.
That makes the start of the new academic year especially hard, she said. "I personally know many of our students, DeShawn included, and I know that many of them struggle financially to make ends meet so they can go to college."
Longtime Hartford educator Gayle Allen-Greene, principal of Bulkeley High's Upper School, said it is not uncommon for city students to be caught in financial limbo once they make it to college. "He's not alone," Allen-Greene said. This time of year, "a lot of our kids struggle with the same thing."
On an August morning, Hamlet contemplated his future in the South End offices of the Village for Families and Children, across the street from Bulkeley. Hamlet has a 20-month-old daughter in Hartford for whom he recently began paying modest child support; the Village's FatherWorks program has helped him look for jobs.
"Right now I have to look at the big picture," said Hamlet, wearing a band around his wrist with the motto, "Discipline Determines Destiny." He recalled childhood visits to see his father in prison and being advised not to cut corners for a quick buck, unless he was willing to do the time.
"I've never been behind a cop car and I want it to stay that way," said Hamlet, who envisions becoming a youth basketball coach in Hartford.