SMC student overcomes difficult past, attending Stanford this fall
Published 9:46 am Monday, June 15, 2015
Dual-enrolled at Southwestern Michigan College senior year, Edwardsburg High School graduate Michael Brooks leaves for California June 18 to study computer science or electrical engineering at Stanford.
Despite a full ride saving Brooks, 18, of Niles, Stanford University’s $64,477-a-year sticker price, it proved a challenging decision because he applied to four others.
Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the University of Michigan also accepted him.
Brooks liked the atmosphere ascribed to “Stanford duck syndrome.”
“Ducks look aesthetically pleasing on top. But underneath, they’re kicking their feet. You never see how hard they’re working. They don’t let it affect their outward attitude. Bill Gates gave the commencement speech last year and said the greatest thing about Stanford students is their unparalleled optimism. That positive attitude is exactly what I saw.”
School softened “the harsh realities of my childhood. For seven hours every weekday, I found refuge in the comfort and support of teachers who cared about me. If my parents could smoke it, snort it or inject it, they abused it. I was 6 years old when I became aware my parents were desperately dependent upon these poisons — so desperate my clothes and toys often became trade-ins for a quick rush of heroin. They would do anything to get high, sleeping in motels, homeless shelters or pop-up campers to reduce our cost of living. At one point in my life, I considered myself lucky to spend an afternoon helping my parents beg for drug money” because it was quality time together.
“We were always surviving rather than living,” he said, “waiting for the third of the month when our parents received their welfare checks. During more prosperous times of my childhood, my brother and I fought for Happy Meals and off-brand mac ’n’ cheese to ease our continual hunger.
“Panhandling often led to run-ins with the law. I recall sitting in the passenger seat of a U-Haul truck while my mother fled a dozen police vehicles. I never could understand how a fine, white powder was more important than having food in our cabinets, nor could I understand how heroin and cocaine tore my family apart. At the same time, these deadly, life-sucking drugs compelled me to make the most of my education and to work hard to continue my love of learning.”
“Every effort to succeed in school was stifled by my parents’ volatile and disruptive need to pack up our belongings and run away,” Brooks said. “I never imagined half of my high school years would be studying out in the cold at 2 a.m. to avoid drugs and violence. I also never imagined that, after the drug-induced death of my father, I would be forced into adulthood at 16.”
Brooks started at SMC last summer. By spring semester he completed three classes with Math/Science Chairman Dr. Keith Howell, chemistry with Dr. Douglas Schauer and physics with Andrew Dohm.
Brooks’ story ricocheted around the Internet to the United Kingdom and back to New York, where a stranger who owns an investment firm bought his Stanford plane ticket.
Liz Murray, author of “Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard,” contacted him on Facebook when he came to her attention at a New Haven, Conn., luncheon.
“Strange as it is to say, he started me on my path,” Brooks said of his dad, who died on a cold street corner outside a crack house. “When I was in kindergarten, he put a multiplication table by my bed and said I should study it before I went to sleep. That was my first intellectual spark. He was a good dad when he wasn’t on drugs.”
Brooks’ mother is in failing health, his brother a homeless high school dropout.
“I escaped a lifetime of miserable chaos by focusing on the one aspect of my life I can control: my education. While it has been incredibly difficult to continue to excel in school, I am proud of the person I have become through these hardships. They prepared me to overcome challenges I will face through college and graduate school. They have given me compassion and deep understanding of hardships that affect people around me.
“As I transition from high school to college,” Brooks said, “I will finally be free to immerse myself completely in my education, unfettered by challenges I faced throughout childhood. With this next step, I found myself.”