Hutchins teen finds second home, and new confidence, at Harvard

Written by Christina Rosales and featured in Dallas News:

When Reuben Howard returned from his freshman year at Harvard, his Hutchins home felt like a movie set. It may be where he’s from, but for better or worse, it’s no longer where he feels he belongs. It’s his past.

“I had detached myself from home a little bit,” Reuben said.

Last summer, The Dallas Morning News featured Reuben’s story about how a relationship through Big Brothers Big Sisters helped him to strive for Harvard. The transition wasn’t easy for the 19-year-old, the first person in his family to attend college.

At first, he doubted his ability to keep up with the work and fit in at such an elite school — but not anymore. “There isn’t one big happy ending,” he said after returning from his first year, “but I think I got a lot better and stopped doubting myself.” There were growing pains, but Reuben found a good group of friends and received encouragement from readers of The News who sent him cards, packages and emails.

Some of those emails came from Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and a Harvard University graduate. The two went for burgers at Mr. Bartley’s in Cambridge, Mass., home to a burger named “The Fiscal Cliff.”

“I’ve never asked anyone at the university to do him any favors or even to look in on him,” said Fisher, who is a Harvard overseer — the school’s version of a trustee. “He’s going to have to earn his success, which he’s done in his first year.”

Reuben spent his summer studying Spanish in Buenos Aires. Drew Swedlund, Reuben’s Big Brother, picked him up from the airport at the end of July.

“I’ve seen the independence come out more,” Swedlund said. “Here’s a kid who went from never leaving Dallas to saying, ‘Hey, I think I’ll go to Argentina to study Spanish.’”

When Swedlund and his wife and infant daughter visited Harvard for parents weekend in November, they saw Reuben had been making friends and finding his second home at school.

But even with the layers of support from mentors and friends at Harvard, Reuben had some stress he couldn’t do anything about back home.

Reuben left behind a family who was acclimating to his stepfather coming home after spending much of Reuben’s life in prison. His mother and siblings struggled with their own transition.

“My family at home is sometimes challenging,” Reuben said. “My classes are rough, but I know they’ll be over. My family, that’s never going to be over.”

His mother leans on him for support, but sometimes Reuben has to remind himself that he’s in college. He has chosen a different life.

Reuben is headed back to school later this month for his second year, and he’s more certain he wants to be an educator.

“I worked hard to get out of my community and go to Harvard,” he said, “but I want to pass that love of education on.”

While in Argentina, Reuben honed his Spanish skills and experienced something he never thought he’d be able to do in a million years, he told Fisher. The two spoke to each other in Spanish.

Last year, Fisher read about Reuben, and the teen’s story resonated with him.

Fisher’s father was homeless as a child in Australia but later made his way to Mexico, where he became a successful businessman. In one generation, Fisher said, his family’s story went from homeless to Harvard, where Fisher earned his undergraduate degree.

“It’s not an easy place,” Fisher said. “You’ve got every valedictorian and smart person attending school there. I called my father when I took my first exam and said I’m not going to make it. But Reuben has been steadily and humbly confident.

“He doesn’t take things for granted. I pray for Reuben that God will make him a shining star.”

This fall, when Reuben returns to Harvard, things will be different from last August. He felt alone and unsure. This year, he’s headed back to a place he knows, a place that has exposed him to opportunity.

“I don’t compare myself as much as I did,” he said. “It’s impossible for someone to know everything. I know now that I don’t know things, not because I’m stupid; I just haven’t been exposed to them. But I think I’m doing pretty well with what I’ve got.”