Student Finds Home At Harvard Shelter

Maximilien Yelbi sits at a large breakfast table that is set for 10 people. He spreads butter and jam across a piece of dry bread. The simple fare is reminiscent of a French snack that he says his mother often prepared for him.

Yelbi is a twenty year-old French student, originally from the Cote d’Ivoire. Unlike many Harvard students, he did not arrive in Cambridge with the certainty of a sparse-but-stable dorm life ahead of him. At 8:00 a.m., Yelbi will soon be forced out of the room, into the cold.

At the homeless shelter at the First Church in Cambridge, Yelbi is the youngest of the shelter’s 14 guests. He joins an ever growing population that finds even the barest of necessities—a warm bed, breakfast, and consistent shelter—hard to find, especially in difficult economic times.

Over the last two years, Yelbi has gone from being a hopeful, college-bound high school senior, to living day-to-day on a meager income garnered from tutoring jobs at a local community college.

He sleeps by night in one of the few relatively-safe homeless shelters in the Cambridge area, including the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a student-run organization affiliated with the Phillips Brooks House Association.

The events that made him homeless would also connect him to a group of Harvard students, volunteers at HSHS, who would help make his dream of attending college a reality.

PREPARING FOR “D-DAY”

In January 2008, Yelbi arrived at HSHS having exhausted the group of friends who had, for months, allowed him to sleep their floors and couches. Peter N. Ganong ’09, one of the shelter’s directors, remembers the first time that he met Yelbi. “The first time saw him, he was reading a Wikipedia page in French on the computer at the shelter.”

The moment was indicative of Yelbi’s thirst for knowledge, Ganong says. “He was always very determined. He knew he wanted to get a better education.”

At the age of seven, Yelbi, and his family left Cote d’Ivoire for Strasbourg, France. Upon entering the French lycée system—the last stage in Frane’s secondary-education system—Yelbi pushed himself to take as many baccalauréat classes as possible while maintaining his hobby, basketball.

But, the limitations of the French education system threatened to put a hold on Yelbi’s ambitions. With an overburdened network of public universities, the French system offers fewer openings than the much larger network in the United States. Yelbi adds that in France admissions are oftentimes more influenced by factors like geographic distribution and family connections than academic performance.

After completing his education in France, Yelbi accepted an offer to play as a fifth-year student on the basketball team at the Notre Dame Preparatory School in Fitchburg, Mass. From there, he hoped to apply to an American university.

“That’s why I was playing basketball 100 percent and going to school at the highest level I could,” he says.

Yelbi is hesitant to discuss details of his time at Notre Dame. He says that he prefers to focus on his life after entering the HSHS. But Ganong says that at Notre Dame, Yelbi received little support for his college aspirations.

“Even though he’s got a lot of drive, he didn’t always know where to direct it,” Ganong says.

Upon his arrival at HSHS, Yelbi, with the help of Ganong and other Harvard volunteers, began what has been a year-long process of applying as a transfer student to a dozen American colleges.

In the spring of 2008, they began the work of crafting a successful application package. Sam Bakkila ’11-’12, who worked at the shelter over the summer, helped to prepare Yelbi to take the SATs and the TOEFL, a standardized exam for students whose second language is English. Lauren M. White ’11, a volunteer at the shelter and a member of The Crimson’s business department, wrote his peer recommendations. White, Adam S. Travis ’10, and Akshata Kadagathur ’11, also read and revised Yelbi’s essays.

Meanwhile, Ganong and Yelbi spent Sunday afternoons in the Science Center, working through application and financial aid forms.

On Oct. 29—“D-Day,” as Ganong calls it—he and Yelbi laid out the 12 applications on the floor of his Adams dorm room and painstakingly checked them for factual inaccuracies. The next day, the applications were sent out, and Yelbi began the long wait for responses.

OVERCOMING DIFFICULTIES

With one hurdle temporarily surmounted, Yelbi is still faced the brutal difficulties of everyday life as a young, homeless student bracing for a rapidly approaching winter season.

Yelbi’s daily routine requires that he negotiate the varied network of emergency homeless shelters in the Boston area, nearly all of which allow only short-term stays. And especially with the impending cold and the deepening financial crisis, shelters are forced to turn away more and more homeless individuals and families.

Between his time at HSHS—which limits guests to two-week stays and requires a one week lapse before the guest is allowed to return—Yelbi moved between the Salvation Army shelter in Central Square and friends’ houses.

In his search for a stable home, Yelbi printed letters that explained his situation and requested help, and placed them in mailboxes and churches in the surrounding suburbs. He received no responses.

Yet Yelbi says that he remains hopeful despite these challenges. “If you want to go somewhere, then never take a no [for an answer],” he says. “Obstacles are made to be overcome.”

When faced with the prospect of homelessness after his graduation from Notre Dame, his mother offered him the chance to return home, but Yelbi refused. “My mother knew my situation, and she’s supportive,” Yelbi says. “But she knew that for me to succeed [I needed to] confront the reality.”

“Just go into the shelter, it’s ok,” he recalls her saying. “It’s not your country, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I don’t want to go back to France because I want my mother to be proud of me and my brothers to look up to me as a model,” Yelbi explains. “So what [would it] be if I go back with nothing? My brothers wouldn’t respect me anymore.”

Yelbi has managed to juggle his enrollment at Bunker Hill Community College, taking classes in Biology, while working at least 30 hours a week.

Nicole E. Guilmette, a professor of science and engineering at Bunker Hill, helped Yelbi work on his applications.

She says she was initially surprised to see him in so many different offices on campus within the space of a single day. “One day, I ran into Max four times at Bunker Hill—at his four different jobs,” she says.

Yelbi considers the work as part of a “journey of giving back.” He is now an English as a Second Language tutor, a mentor for new students, and a math tutor for disabled students.

LOOKING FORWARD, ANXIOUSLY

In the weeks after he sent his applications, three of the 12 schools that Yelbi applied to informed him that they would not be able to offer him financial aid as an international student, and as a result, could not admit him through their transfer program.

Despite these early disappointments, Ganong says that Yelbi remains hopeful. “He handles failure better than anyone I know, in the sense that when he fails, he says ‘Okay, time to push on.’”

On Nov. 30, Ganong rifled through his campus mailbox where he has been receiving Yelbi’s college mail. Intermixed with a number of promotional college packets, Ganong found a thin envelope from Hamilton College in New York, ne of the institutions to whic Yelbi had applied.

Ganong says that he had to contain his excitement until Yelbi arrived later that day. They opened the envelope together to find that it contained a letter of acceptance along with an offer of a full scholarship.

“I was jumping around the room—I tripped and almost broke my roommate’s laptop,” Ganong said. “Max was screaming with joy, he called his sister and was almost crying; it was an incredible moment.”

Much has changed since Yelbi first came to the United States in the hopes of playing basketball professionally.

“I was kind of arrogant—I was a recruit for the [basketball] team,” he says.

He now says that he hopes to go to medical school and “use the knowledge I get from God to serve people.”

“I try to be humble,” Yelbi says, “Money makes people feel secure, but one day if something happens to them, they will realize, that’s not what makes their life meaningful.”

—Staff writer Edward-Michael Dussom can be reached at emdussom@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Gordon Y. Liao can be reached at liao@fas.harvard.edu.