Growing up, there were many days when Mich Hamlin had no idea whether or not he would eat.

He and his two brothers often scrambled to find a safe place to sleep at night, sometimes slipping behind mechanic shops or curling up among trash cans or in parks, protecting themselves from sprinklers, hiding from the authorities.

Before school, they would wash up in gas station restrooms.

The three boys floated between shelters around Montclair, California, 35 miles east of Los Angeles, off and on for years as both parents battled addiction. "It was never the same place for multiple nights," remembers Hamlin, who spent six years in foster care as well.

Running on the high school track team was often his only solace—and the thing that motivated him to succeed in the classroom.

The road to receiving a bachelor's in kinesiology from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in spring 2016 wasn't a straight or easy one, either, says Hamlin.

But the variety of programs and services he found at Cal Poly Pomona helped him envision, and carve out, his own path to success.

"It's hard for first-generation college students and emancipated foster youth to really dig deep into their education because there are still things going on in their personal life that are a real distraction for them," he explains.

"Pomona has been more than an education institution to me. It has been my home for learning, growing and success," adds Hamlin, who's applied to several programs on his mission to earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.).

 

Emerging from the System

The lean 23-year-old is certainly not alone among former foster youth who encounter an uphill climb to academic achievement.

Studies show that college students who have been in foster care often face arduous barriers in the classroom; a lack of support at home, for example, can be disastrous to a young person's education.

In California, the college graduation rate for students who have lived in foster care may be as low as three percent, and only a fraction of those go on to pursue an advanced degree.

A core mission of the California State University is providing underserved students—which includes former foster youth—with access to resources that have been shown to help these students graduate. Examples of practices that have been linked to earning a degree include attending Summer Bridge and orientation programs before starting as a freshman; participating in clubs and sports; seeking out tutors and advisors; and living on campus.

Hamlin did all of these.

"The athletic department is not the only reason I had success and the [Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP] is not [either]," he says. "It was multiple programs throughout the campus that came together to help shape and mold me… Those programs made the impossible possible."

 

Finding His Footing

A combination of good grades and encouragement from his social worker got Hamlin to Cal Poly Pomona, a huge accomplishment on its own. But it wouldn't be enough to guarantee he'd do well.

An excellent athlete, Hamlin had a demanding schedule on the men's track and field team in addition to carrying a full course load as a freshman. He remembers first approaching college as an extension of high school—and quickly learned that wouldn't work.

"My first quarter here at Cal Poly Pomona I ended up with a 2.0 [GPA]," remembers the 6'0" sprinter. "After that, I knew that if I wanted to succeed in college, I had to adapt."

He first turned to Renaissance Scholars, a support program that empowers foster youth on campus.

Renaissance Scholars made sure he had access to affordable housing and regular meals and also connected him with the EOP, which serves low-income, first-generation college students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. There he learned better time management and study skills and took advantage of tutoring for the first time.

The rest was up to Hamlin.

 

'I Wanted to Give Back'

By the quarter following that first dismal GPA he'd earned a 3.5. And by the second half of his freshman year he was tutoring other students.

"[Renaissance Scholars'] tutors had such an impact that I wanted to give back in a way that had been essential to me," recalls Hamlin.

"My philosophy with the students that I tutor is to let them know someone cares, someone has been there and pushed through it and is willing to help them do the same."

In his sophomore year, Hamlin sought additional tutoring from the Reading, Advising & Mentoring Program (RAMP) at Cal Poly Pomona and began helping others in that program as well.

"The enormous amount of resources here at the CSU definitely transformed me for the better," says Hamlin. For three years, he served as a resident assistant for the same Summer Bridge program that had once helped him prepare for college life.

"I transformed from getting the services to giving the services," he says with a laugh.

 

Hitting His Stride

Throughout the rest of his time at Pomona, Hamlin continued to excel in the classroom. He became a mainstay on student-athlete All-Academic lists.

The campus's renowned Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion and lab offer undergraduate students unusual access to cutting-edge equipment; that exposure to devices that measure physical performance down to the molecule helped Hamlin decide to focus his studies on motor development, rehabilitation and sports medicine.

With the help of Pomona's lab, he says, "you're able to translate book knowledge into fundamental knowledge and understand the physiological demands on the body under certain conditions. It's just amazing."

A love of serving others soon transformed Hamlin's academic ambitions again, from wanting to rehab athletes to hoping to work with vets. "I want to not only give back to the community, but I feel there's a real need for the veterans," he says. "I want them to be able to have the life they had before."

These days, there's little question about whether Hamlin will succeed, no matter which path he chooses. And he's very clear about how he got where he is.

"I wasn't lucky," he says. "I was determined. I wasn't going to let my parents' situation define me. I persevered through many obstacles. I broke the cycle."