As he tells it, he spent two years attending college in DC before returning home to Newark. He was struggling financially at the time, and tuition fees were piling up. It was one of the reasons he decided to leave, but it was not the only one. He sees it now.
“I could blame the finances,” he said recently. “But I could have gotten a job, I could have stayed in DC, I could have finished what time I had left.”
He could have graduated from any of the nation’s HBCUs — historically black colleges and universities.
But he was 19, he said, and his pride and level of maturity left him trying to carve his way through life like electricity – following the path of least resistance. He returned to live with his parents. He started working. He had a child. And it took him years to realize what he had given up when he left Howard. On the day we spoke, he ticked off a long list of names of notable alumni, including Vice President Harris and Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, all too aware that he cannot lay claim to a single title that ‘They hold.
“I can’t wear the Howard alumni hat,” he said. “I can wear the Howard shirt, but I can’t wear the Howard alumni hat. … It’s such a bitter pill because I love this place. It meant so much to me, just when I was there.
We all carry our greatest regrets in different ways. Some of us try to push them into the farthest recesses of our minds in hopes of forgetting the circumstances that led them. Some of us keep them close, allowing them to take up space in our thoughts as our days go by. And then there are those of us who openly claim them and use them to propel us in directions we might not otherwise go.
Hassan did it with his missed opportunity. He’s now 48 and still doesn’t have a license from Howard or a university. However and because of this, he has spent the past few years working to help raise funds for students who attend HBCUs.
Since 2020, he has helped raise over $100,000 and his efforts have caught the attention of GoFundMe staff members. Hassan was named a GoFundMe Hero, and he’s now working with the company on an initiative that seeks textbook grants worth $500 each for HBCU students. The effort is being made through the company’s GoFindYou initiative, which is described online as “a place to celebrate often overlooked stories of black joy.”
“We see a lot of stories of black joy that are overshadowed by grief and trauma,” said Leigh Lehman, director of communications at GoFundMe. Embedded in fundraising efforts centered on painful issues, she said, are those aimed at raising money to start small businesses, paying for black and brown children to see films such as ” Black Panther” and “funding the next generation of HBCU scholars.”
From Friday, the fundraising page for textbook scholarships showed that over $22,000 had been raised towards a goal of $75,000. Lehman said the company has tried to get the word out to students, so they can benefit, and to potential donors, so they can contribute.
“We want him to live in perpetuity,” she said.
As the Supreme Court considers the affirmative action issue, much of the public debate recently has focused on the admission of black and brown students into colleges and universities. But getting in is only part of the picture. Staying on can also prove a challenge, especially as wider economic inequalities leave many of these students entering with less financial security than their white peers.
As someone who grew up in an underserved neighborhood and was lucky enough to get into Stanford University, I can tell you that financial help beyond loans would have brought welcome relief, even though it only took the form of a textbook subsidy. For one course, I had to buy more than 30 books.
Hassan, who now works for a Newark council member, said he grew up in a “typical working poor” household in a neighborhood that was a food desert. His hope with the fundraiser, he said, is not just to see students graduate, but also to see them return to their communities and improve their lives there. What that might look like, he said, is a student coming home and saying, ‘My mother’s block is falling apart, I have an engineering degree, how can I help?
Hassan started a non-profit association to manage the distribution of the funds raised. But in 2020, the effort started the easy way – with a request from a friend. One of Hassan’s former classmates told him that his niece had been accepted to Howard but needed help with her tuition. Hassan donated to his GoFundMe page, but then worried he might not meet his $18,000 goal. So he had an idea: he would raise money for her by cycling from Newark to Howard University. Four friends agreed to join and their effort became “Bike for Marbella”.
Together they raised around $7,000, which was below Marbella’s goal, but was enough when combined with the funds she had raised and the money she saved. studying from home after covid precautions prompted the university to move classes online.
The following year Hassan rode his bike again – and this year he did it again. Along the way, he said, he and the other cyclists met strangers who donated on the spot when they heard about the cause. A man they met in Maryland told them his grandson was attending HBCU and gave them $50. A woman who overheard the exchange also made a donation.
A GoFundMe page for the most recent “HBCU Scholarship Bike Ride” shows a goal set at $50,000 and over $64,000 raised.
But a different measure of success also exists. Hassan said that Marbella has graduated and that two other students who have received funding are expected to graduate in 2024. That year, Hassan will also graduate with his baccalaureate. He said he was inspired to go back to school and was attending Rutgers University. “You can’t tell kids to do something, and you don’t,” he said.
Obtaining this degree will mark a milestone in his life, but in a way, he already feels like he has crossed the stage. Each year, the bike ride ends at the Yard on the Howard University campus, and riders are greeted with applause.
“When I ride on campus, it’s my graduation every year,” he said. “When everyone claps, it’s my graduation.”