“I hate leaving Hamilton,” Max Yelbi, a 22-year-old college student, said of his summer hiatus from Clinton, N.Y. He has made a home on the sprawling campus in upstate New
York, a home he did not have a year ago.
Ye l b i , a t a l l , y o u n g , b l a c k Frenchman, came to this country in hopes of creating his own American dream. He aspired to playing professional basketball, going to college, and making a name for himself. However, his plans took a turn when he found himself homeless at age 20. Yelbi was born in the Cote d’Ivoire, the eldest of five children. He and his family moved to a small town outside of Geneva, France when he was five year old.
His mother, unemployed despite her Ph.D., did her best to raise her family. “Money wasn’t in the house, but education was in the house,” Yelbi said. With government assistance, she managed to send Max and his siblings to top schools and encouraged them to learn all they could at home. “She pushed me toward a goal,” Yelbi said of his mother. “She’s tough. She trained me like a soldier,” a strength of will that would serve Yelbi well in later years.
Growing up in the projects in France, Yelbi encountered a great deal of racism and felt smothered by his socioeconomic status, leading him to vow to leave the country when he was older. That opportunity came when Yelbi was 17 and he was more than ready to leave France. He had played basketball all his life, primarily on the streets. In secondary school, he was recruited by Notre Dame Preparatory School in Fitchburg, Mass., for a fifth year to play with a team that often led to the NBA draft. Notre Dame provided him with a full scholarship, including room and board.
During his year in Fitchburg, Yelbi struggled as an immigrant. “It was so hard. I spoke no English,” he said. He often felt excluded and rarely understood what his coach would yell out across the court.
His teammates taught him slang, a language in and of itself. Yelbi recalls walking around for a time calling the basketball ‘the big diggity.’ Over time and through assimilation, he learned English basics and used television, radio, and conversation to build upon that foundation.
Yelbi heard about Bunker Hill Community College through word of mouth and after Notre Dame, moved on to the junior college. He continued to play basketball, joining the team at Bunker Hill.
To support himself, he worked as a mentor, a clerk, and a tutor for French, math, and English as a Second Language around campus. He made connections with other West African parishioners at his church and in their hospitality, found temporary housing in their homes.
After living with his pastor for some time, a woman and her family from his church opened their home to Yelbi. However, his welcome soon wore out. “At some point, I had to leave,” Yelbi said of his transient existence as a constant house guest. At one point, his relationship with his host got so tense that she locked him out, putting him on the street in the middle of November. “I didn’t know where I could stay,” he said. Desperate and afraid, he called his mother in France.
“My mom told me to lift my eyes to the sky and pray,” and told him he could come home. But for Yelbi, that was never an option. He wanted to be a role model to his younger siblings and thought he would be viewed as a failure if he returned to France.
“I would never go back,” Yelbi said. “It was here or here.” Determined to finish what he had started in coming to the U.S., he reassured his mother, and with the resolve she had instilled in him, set out to do what was necessary to survive. She left him with a final word of advice: “If you’re independent, you don’t owe anything to anybody,” she told him that cold night in November.
After a few more short stays with friends and fellow parishioners, Yelbi found himself outside the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) in Cambridge one January evening. He hesitated outside, uneasy about going inside. “I had all these apprehensions about homeless people,” Yelbi said. “No matter how hard it is, you just have to do it.”
After finally mustering the courage to enter the shelter in the basement of the University Lutheran Church, Yelbi’s fear of homelessness slowly changed as he found a home at HSHS, He interacted with and befriended some of the Harvard volunteers at the entirely student-run shelter, where he was their youngest guest ever.
However, like most housing for the homeless, there are term limits on stays and he had to move around to other shelters. He stayed at the Salvation Army in Central Square and as far out as Waltham, but never felt quite as secure as he did at HSHS. For three months, Yelbi was still playing for the Bunker Hill basketball team while homeless, trying not to let on that he might not always have somewhere to go after practice. “There are always obstacles,” he said.
He continued to attend Bunker Hill for two and a half years, using a reduced fee subway pass to get from campus to the shelter. Though Yelbi considerd the community college a good transition at the time, he said he did not feel academically challenged and sought to transfer to a four-year college. Utilizing his “connections with people” at the shelter, the sociable Yelbi elicited the help of his newfound Harvard friends in assisting him with the tedious transfer process. The student shelter volunteers helped him study for the SATs and TOEFL, bringing him flashcards, workbooks, and study aids. They edited his personal essays, guided him through financial aid forms and application fee waivers, and even pitched in to buy him a suit and a pair of dress shoes for interviews. Yelbi still has that suit. “It’s my only suit,” he said.
He applied to 12 schools, one of which was Harvard. “I already felt like a student there, with friends, studying in the library, occasionally eating in the dining halls,” Yelbi said of his top choice. Unfortunately, Harvard cancelled all transfer applications in late March of that year, citing a lack of housing as the reason behind their decision. Over the next few months, Yelbi heard back from school after school. A few were acceptances but could not provide enough, if any, financial assistance. One spring evening, Yelbi got a text message from Peter Ganong, a former Harvard undergrad who was holding his mail for him, that read: “A big thin envelope from Hamilton [College] is here.”
Yelbi rushed over to Ganong’s dorm room, finding Sam Bakkila, Adam Travis, and Akshata Kadagarthur — all HSHS volunteers and Harvard students that had helped him with the transfer process — waiting for him. He and Ganong opened the letter together, discovering that he had been accepted. Excited, they put their celebration on hold, waiting to see what the financial aid package had in store. When Yelbi saw that Hamilton College had offered him a full scholarship and housing, he fell to the floor with relief as his friends jumped for joy around him. He kept the life-changing text Ganong sent to him and keeps a piece of paper with the names of the HSHS volunteers that were there to open that momentous letter with him in his wallet always. “They felt bad for me,” Yelbi joked about the Hamilton admissions board. “But I worked really hard and it’s true, a goal without a plan in just a wish,” he said, quoting French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Heading into his second year at Hamilton, Max Yelbi has left behind his hoop dreams and is instead double-majoring in biochemistry and economics and plans on pursuing medicine, a “practical profession that will allow me to stay and live in this country.” He is studying for the MCATs and hopes to take them next summer.
Last semester, Yelbi got the first A of his college career. Hamilton has extended his full scholarship through 2012, which is when he intends to graduate. “Hamilton rocks,” Yelbi said of the school that officially ended his homelessness and made his college dreams a reality. “I will always represent Hamilton.” Yelbi has become somewhat of a local celebrity around Bunker Hill and Cambridge, his story resonating with students and staff alike in a town synonymous with higher education.
He shies away from the brush with fame, shocked to find himself suddenly noticed. He marveled at a story of his success appearing in a Boston Globe article in January 2009.
“It was the day after Obama was elected, so his face was on the cover. Black athletes who had won medals in the Olympics were on the front of the sports page. And my face was on the first page of the Metro section. It was embarrassing,” he said, of appearing amongst other noteworthy black men. He even candidly admitted to feeling uneasy about receiving a top housing lottery number at Hamilton, uncomfortable being courted by other students to get first pick at dorm rooms. “I’m not looking for happiness, I’m seeking knowledge,” Yelbi said.
Expanding his mind is definitely his primary objective. With an authentic appetite for learning, Yelbi reads Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Aristotle, and Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in his spare time, hoping to read what he deems, “all the great books.”
He is taking five classes for the upcoming semester, and hopes to step outside his majors and explore theater. “I don’t want to miss out. I’m trying everything right now and we’ll see what happens,” he said. In the same vein, he hopes to turn his struggles into a documentary to show others facing similar odds that if you “Play by the rules and believe in yourself…you can achieve it.”
From all this, Yelbi’s greatest lesson learned has been that “the best things in life are not what you get. It’s when you’re trying to achieve it that feels good,” he said. “I don’t know how I did it, but you just go your own way.”
Four years after leaving home, Yelbi went back to France to see his family. “She’s proud,” he said of his mother.
As Yelbi heads back to school, he’s excited for the years ahead. “My home is in my room [at Hamilton]. I earned it. I own it. This is mine.”
For Max Yelbi, it has been a long road to fulfilling the American dream, one that left him ostracized as an immigrant and homeless at 20. With a resolve instilled in him by his mother and crafted into a proactive state of being entirely his own as an adult, Max
Yelbi tackles all his activities with authentic passion and assuredness.
“I just have to keep going, doing what I have to do,” he said. Doing just that Max Yelbi continues achieve everything he sets his mind to, a success story in every way.