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.
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.
If his fundraising push failed, Hamlet said he would get a job here, pay the debt, help his baby's mother and make it back to college someday. He's studying for his learner's permit so he can get a Connecticut driver's license.
"Like everybody says, you always have to work for it."
'Not Always Enough'
Hamlet's path to Vermont seemed unlikely in his senior year at Bulkeley.
After winning the state basketball championship as a junior in 2009, when he scored 21 points and had 11 rebounds in the title game, Hamlet remembered roaming the school hallways and thinking, "Everybody knows me. I'm a star."
"I never had that before," Hamlet said of that teenage fog of fame. He let his grades slip until Bulkeley Athletic Director Diane Callis and teachers gave him a reality check. "They told me, 'You know you're not going to play. Your grades are not right.' "
Hamlet was academically ineligible for almost the entire senior season. Callis said Hamlet, known by the nickname D.D., has been "a lovable young man from the start. ... I think he just got a little lazy, sidetracked, with his basketball prowess being so good at a young age."
"Everybody falters," Callis recalled telling him at the time. "Now it's up to you. Do you take a step back or take a step forward?"
Hamlet stayed after school for help, became eligible for the playoffs and made it to Southern Vermont College, where coaches gave him a chance. Hamlet said he has battled immaturity at times — adjusting to college and "growing up as a man," as he put it — and has worked to raise his grades to NCAA standards.
During one period after freshman year, Hamlet said his education stalled when he faced financial aid issues, and so he worked at a Hartford after-school program for about six months before returning to college as a sophomore. The $3,000 bill stemmed from a summer class on exercise science that he took last year and passed, he said.
"We want nothing more than that DeShawn and our other students continue in college," Gross said earlier this month.
As a NCAA Division III school, no athletic scholarships are handed out at Southern Vermont, which charges $32,870 for tuition, room and board. The 500-student college in the town of Bennington spends more than $4 million annually on student aid, Gross said.
"We do a great deal for our students ... but even with all that, it's not always enough."
Gross said a challenge in higher education is finding ways to provide more aid, including loans, to students so they can make it to graduation: "While debt is difficult, debt without diploma is even worse."
'Don't Give Up'
Allen-Greene, the Bulkeley principal, said the city school system's new Hartford Promise scholarship program could help future students stay in college.
Starting in 2016, Hartford high school seniors graduating from the public school system can receive up to $20,000 over four years to help cover that financial gap. Students attending a four-year college, public or private, would get $5,000 per year, while those enrolled full-time at a two-year community college would be awarded $2,500 annually. Philanthropists and corporate leaders have financed the program.
Callis and Allen-Greene said they keep in touch with Hamlet and saw him play in late January, scoring 23 points against Mitchell College in New London. They brought his mother and a care package of food and Gatorade.
"It's a tough road, but that's why we've gone to games and ... enourage him and say, 'Don't give up; you've made it this far, keep going,' " Callis said.
Comer, the lead fundraiser for Hamlet, said she first got to know him through a short-lived "safe houses" city initiative when he attended middle school. Hamlet and other kids would hang out at her Hartford home in the afternoons to watch music videos, use the computer or play basketball in the backyard. The point was for them to stay off the streets.
Comer, who set up an online donation page for Hamlet, believes he is the only one from that group who is currently in college.
Many of them are now working and raising families, but a few wound up in prison or were lost to Hartford violence, Comer said. One boy died at age 15 after being shot in a gang turf war. Another was killed at 18 when he was stabbed in the neck and heart.
On Thursday afternoon, Hamlet hugged Comer when she told him he was $750 away from going back to college. Tears rolled down her cheek.
Later, after the goal was met, Comer said additional money that's raised will help defray Hamlet's future college expenses.
Mary Hamlet said she tried to keep her son motivated when it seemed, two weeks ago, that the deadline would arrive with perhaps no resolution. A former Hartford Public High School dropout, she earned her diploma through an adult education program and now attends Capital Community College, she said.
"I keep saying, 'You know, DeShawn, you just got to be optimistic, you've got to pray, be positive.' "