"From homeless to Howard" might sound like the title of a movie, but for 19-year-old James Ward, this is his reality -- though it still feels like a dream.
"It's surreal. I can't believe after everything that's happened I'm going to be leaving to attend Howard," Ward said in an interview with The Huffington Post, reflecting on the generosity of strangers who put him on the path to Washington, D.C.
Ward, a resident of Los Angeles, will be able to matriculate at the historically black college this fall thanks to an online campaign he launched just last week called "Homeless To Howard."
His site is collecting donations through Paypal and has picked up steam across social media. Teach For America sent out a tweet highlighting Ward's story, and rapper Common shared the link to the site, supporting Ward's dream to attend college.
To date, the efforts have raised $12,000, enough to handle his first-year expenses not covered by loans or grants. The bigger goal is to raise the funds for all four years of college. But for the moment, just having enough to cover the first year, Ward said, is beyond what he expected.
"I would've never thought that something we started just a couple of days ago would've turned out to become this massive," Ward said. "However, it makes me feel very happy because I know that although the world may seem like a harsh and cold place, there are some people out there that care and want to give to those in need."
Since the age of 14, Ward, along with his mom and two younger siblings, has been homeless in California. When times were really hard, they lived in his mom's car, but otherwise they've moved between different shelters and relatives' homes until they secured a spot at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles' Skid Row neighborhood in February 2012.
"In the past years, life has been very hectic," he said. "We had a lot of ups and downs, but through it all, I've always managed to keep my grades up and help my younger brother and sister do the same and keep them on the right track as well as myself."
Despite not having a stable home and attending three different high schools in four years, James graduated from San Pedro High School in June. Determined to attend college, he figured out a plan and made it happen -- with a crucial helping hand from Jessica Sutherland.
Sutherland, the driving force behind the online campaign, is no stranger to the struggles Ward is facing because she also experienced homelessness as a teen, attended college and made a way for herself.
"I got my first period in a homeless shelter. I had Christmas in a homeless shelter," said Sutherland, now a junior producer at Yahoo! Studios. "I know what it's like to live in a homeless shelter at such a self-conscious age when you're going through so much."
She met Ward when she spoke at the Union Rescue Mission. "I was terrified, but I did it," she recalled. "I told all the kids that scars heal and you probably couldn't tell that I lived in a shelter like this when I was your age, and just tried to give them a message of hope and teach them to ask people for help."
Ward, she said, stood out as clearly mature beyond his years. "Two kids asked me for my email address, and James had emailed me before I was even home. He really opened up with me."
When you ask him about the hard times and the years on the streets, Ward doesn't focus on the negative.
"One of the biggest things I've learned from my experiences is that, no matter who you are or how scared you are, as long as you ask for help there's always someone out there who is willing to help you," he said. "More kids should understand that because if they did, then you never know what could happen. They could find their own Jessica maybe. But I doubt it, not like mine."
The average cost of the freshman year at Howard University -- for tuition, fees, and room and board -- is $32,165, according to a university official. Ward obtained loans and grants to cover 70 percent of this amount. But add in books and supplies, transportation and other incidentals, and he needed to find another $12,000 to $14,000.
Before launching the campaign, Ward also attempted to apply for a Parent PLUS loan, but since such a loan looked to his mother's credit, he was denied.
"My attitude is -- like myself, I also grew up homeless -- he didn't ask to be born into this, and it's not his credit, but he's the one being punished for it," said Sutherland, speaking of the frustrations of applying for loans. The denial of the Parent PLUS loan pushed her to create the online campaign.
Ward is not the only one facing hurdles to higher education financing. Howard University stated via email that thousands of students at historically black colleges and universities were affected by "credit requirement changes in the Federal Direct PLUS Loan program." Several media reports cite stricter enforcement of credit history requirements, which has hit HBCU students especially hard. According to Department of Education numbers provided to the United Negro College Fund, 28,000 students attending HBCUs were denied a Parent PLUS loan in the 2012-2013 school year.
Some universities and other organizations have warned that this could lower the number of students who are able to attend school this fall. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund is seeking to hear from parents who were denied, while Morgan State University is trying to raise an emergency scholarship fund in the amount of $300,000.
According to Howard University:
Loan denials for undergraduates and their parents increased from 36% in the 2011-2012 academic year to nearly 47% in the 2012-2013 academic year. We are seeing similar trends with denial rates this year. With support from the University, more than 90 percent of appeals to the Department of Education were approved. Notwithstanding these efforts, several hundred students could not return or re-enroll elsewhere largely because of financial difficulty.
But thanks to the kindness of strangers, Ward won't be one of those students. He leaves on Friday morning to attend Howard with his mind focused on what he will do with the rest of his life.
"I want to be an astrophysicist or a genetic engineer," said Ward. "I'm not sure which route I'm going to go, but I know it's one of those two. Science has always been one of the biggest parts of my life."
He will be the first in his family to attend college. His sister, 14, enters high school this fall; his brother is 7. Ward's mother just completed a licensed vocational nurse course -- with help from Harbor Interfaith Services, an outreach program -- and she plans to enroll this spring to pursue a bachelor's degree in nursing. So if all goes according to plan, Ward, his mother and his sister may all be graduating in 2017.
"[I'm] following my dreams," Ward said, "but it was never about me. It was always about my younger brother and sister learning that education is what they need, because as long as you have knowledge, no one can ever take it from you."