Fighting the odds

After overcoming financial and social hurdles, Malik Day hopes he can help struggling students.

Christopher Aadland

Most would agree that Malik Day’s high school resume is impressive.

Besides a 3.75 GPA, Day was a member of the National Honor Society, a volunteer, a boxer and a varsity football player — all while working nearly 40 hours a week to support his family.

But Day’s experiences in high school, and his high GPA at the University of Minnesota, aren’t what make him stand out among his peers.

The finance and information management systems sophomore comes from a family of poverty living in north Minneapolis. Day attended Patrick Henry High School, which has recently been cited as successfully fighting the achievement gap, but it’s a place where college isn’t always the natural step after graduation.

While Day stands out at the University as someone who overcame obstacles to attend college, he says his story is all too common among those who come from adversity.

As the University looks to increase its number of students from diverse backgrounds, some of those students, like Day, are faced with large financial and social obstacles while they try to succeed in a higher education setting.

Day originally wanted to attend a historically black college or university, but the financial aid packages they offered would have burdened him with debt.

So he turned to the University.

Day said because of his relatively low ACT score, the school probably didn’t accept his application right away.

“The University needs to consider not just the test scores, but what the kids really go through,” said Day, who was the only person in his household who had a job and the first person to graduate high school.

And when he did get into the University, the first financial aid package the school offered was “horrible,” he said.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, 85 percent of University students of color and 84 percent of first-generation students received financial aid in 2014.

But like Day’s situation, that aid may not be enough for low-income students to cover college costs.

Day’s financial situation almost left him out of school, until one of his high school teachers wrote an editorial to the Star Tribune newspaper, highlighting Day’s accomplishments and asking the public to help.

That’s when Jim Leslie and his wife stepped in. The Leslies read the editorial and decided to establish a full-ride, four-year scholarship for three inner-city first-generation students.

“There are students who’ve done everything you could possibly ask them to do to take charge of their lives and to be responsible and hardworking and dedicated,” Jim Leslie said. “Still, that can mean they are not able to go to college because a gap in financial ability and the aid that is available to them.”

Though the Leslies established the scholarships based on Day’s story, they didn’t know who he was. The University picked Day as one of the recipients of the award based on his background.

But even with financial assistance, students from low-income families need to be armed with experience and an education that prepares them to succeed after high school, which may be hard to come by in disadvantaged communities.

The endless cycle of poverty and lack of believing they can do better for themselves leads many disadvantaged students to feel hopeless, said Shay Glorius Martin, program director at New Lens Urban Mentoring Society, which is a St. Paul-based mentoring group for young black men. Day volunteers with the program on weekends.

Day said his family was frequently homeless throughout his childhood, noting that it wasn’t uncommon for them to be without running water or electricity when they did have a roof over their heads. As a child and throughout his teenage years, Day and four of his siblings shared five outfits — which he said is common in his neighborhood.

Strong mentors who meet with students in those situations on a regular basis and show them they can go to college can help “break down those barriers,” Martin said.

“As they start to elevate themselves, their mind-state, their outlook, their confidence — once they start to break through those labels that have been put on them — [they] can’t help but to elevate once [they] experience those things,” he said.

To encourage others who grew up in similar situations, Day mentors a group of high school students from east St. Paul every Saturday.

He’s hoping his example of hard work will not only motivate those he mentors, but his younger siblings, too.

“I don’t want to be the only person in the house with a high school diploma,” Day said. “I want my younger siblings to get to where they want to go.”

In the short term, Day tentatively plans to go into investment banking, graduate school and then maybe technology consulting. But in the future, he hopes to be in a position, like the Leslies, where he can give back to underprivileged communities.

“This endless cycle is going to keep repeating unless some of the bolts break,” Day said. “And the way those bolts break is having some of those individuals steer them on a different path.”