The road to U.C. Berkeley was not an easy one for Moreno Valley's Jamal Samuel. It included 4:15 am treks along the barren landscape of the former March Air Force base to catch the first of two buses that would get him to Riverside's North High School.
Unbeknownst to most of his fellow students and teachers, Jamal spent his junior and senior year of high school living at King Hall -- a homeless shelter on the base run by Path of Life Ministries. Once military housing, the barracks have been converted into small one-room apartments for the homeless.
Jamal, his mother, and his younger sister, lived in a tiny room which consisted of bunk beds, a kitchenette, and a bathroom shared with another unit.
The family's misfortune began when Jamal was a sophomore in high school and his parents divorced. Shortly thereafter his mom suffered a brain aneurism that left her partially paralyzed (she has since recovered), and the family lost their house and ended up at the shelter.
Nevertheless, with heavy encouragement from his mother, Jamal decided to not let their living situation keep him from returning to his high school. He says, "I knew my only hope for a better future was to finish high school and go to college."
Jamal recalls school day mornings at the desolate former base, "I got up at 4 a.m. and shortly thereafter walked down Meyer Drive toward the first bus which would pick me up on JFK and drop me at the Moreno Valley Mall. From there I would catch a second bus headed to University Village and then walk the remaining few blocks to North High School. "
Jamal did well in his Advanced Placement and honors classes at North High. Most days, he stayed at school as long as possible to get in study time. In the evening, he would make the lengthy two-bus trip back to King Hall, sometimes not getting home before 9 p.m. if he had swim team practice. He recalls, "I did as much studying at school as I could, and by the time I got home I had just enough time to eat, complete my homework and then it was time for bed because I had to get up early the next morning. On weekends, when my friends were hanging out, I would try to catch up on my sleep."
Path of Life staff worker Iris Mugica remembers Jamal was very angry when he first came to the shelter. His mom, Claudette Jack, says he was upset about their homelessness and mad at God. But slowly he came to realize he had to keep going and he had to excel. "I had to grow up fast," Jamal says of his experience in the shelter. "I kept thinking, 'this is a bad situation and I have to make it a better situation.' All I knew is that I want a family and children of my own one day and I wouldn't want them to go through what I did. So this is how I got through it. I knew education was the only way to make a better life for the family I hope to have someday."
Jamal listened to his mentors at school, mostly teachers who would tell the class, "Your life can be made better through education." "They would tell us we MUST graduate, and I listened," he says. "They probably weren't even aware of me or my situation. Still I appreciate what they said."
Today, 19-year-old Jamal Samuel can't believe he is a sophomore at one of the most highly rated universities in the world. "I submitted the standard UC application and I was accepted at UC Berkeley. At the time, I knew little about the campus or its ranking. Now I love it! I love the area, the culture, and the students. This campus is amazing! "
Jamal plans to graduate with a degree in architectural engineering and then go on to M.I.T. or Harvard University. He says he will never forget what his family has gone through and the support he has gotten from others. He hopes to "one day help those who are in bad situations" by designing and building state-of-the-art shelters for families in need. He is thankful that his mom and sister are also out of the shelter and living in an apartment in Moreno Valley.
Currently searching for a part-time job to help defray his college expenses, Jamal is already giving back to others as a volunteer in a mentoring program at a middle school in Oakland. He has not forgotten the lessons of his high school years. "I tell the students what my mom and teachers told me," he says. "Aim high despite your circumstances!"
Moreno Valley's Jamal Samuel on the Berkeley campus. Photo by Areidy Aracely Beltran.
This is the feature story in the newly launched Valley Life Today magazine, covering Moreno Valley, California and its surrounding communities.
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