There’s a 2003 TV movie called “Homeless to Harvard,” based on the true story of a girl from the Bronx. That is not Ethan Medlin’s life. Yet the Monroe teen can identify with the film title.
For a time during his sophomore year at Monroe High School, Medlin’s family was homeless. And in a superb example of triumph over adversity, the 18-year-old has just started his freshman year at Harvard University.
“We definitely threw some curve balls at him, but he’s hit them all,” said Rochelle Clinton, Medlin’s mother, who lives in Monroe.
By phone, nearly 3,000 miles from Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, I heard the majestic toll of a bell from the university’s Memorial Church. I spoke with Medlin who was on the Harvard campus. The church is visible from — and within earshot of — his freshman dormitory, Thayer Hall.
His mom was there when her son moved in Aug. 22. He started classes Aug. 30.
“It was just beautiful,” Clinton said. “It’s always hard when you walk away, and my visions were of losing it and crying. But I got a real calm sense that this is where he needs to be. This is going to be the most wonderful thing for him. I walked away with a smile on my face.”
Medlin, who was awarded a full-ride scholarship to Harvard, was featured in The Daily Herald in June. Just before graduation, he and many of his high school classmates visited their alma mater, Monroe’s Chain Lake Elementary School, as part of the district’s Senior Walk.
“Ethan is just a renaissance guy,” Monroe High School’s then-principal, John Lombardi, said in June. A valedictorian, Medlin graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average, and as a National Merit Commended Student and an AP Scholar with Distinction.
In his college application essay, he wrote about his family staying in a tent for a time, and what it was like to keep up his studies.
“His story about studying in the rain is absolutely true. It was a time that was really financially very difficult,” Clinton said. They had lived in a rented house, and the owners didn’t renew their lease. “They were putting the house on the market,” she said.
Clinton, who also has two daughters and a granddaughter, said the temporary solution was camping, at first in a tent, and later in a camper borrowed from a friend. “That was pretty tough. We had cats in the tent in the rain,” she said.
Within a few months, the family found another affordable rental. Clinton, 50, works from home for Amazon, in virtual customer service.
Medlin has stepped into a different world. He brings experiences sure to be valuable as he works toward a possible career in government or public policy. He credits both his parents for being positive influences in his life.
His father, Shad Medlin, a night manager at the Monroe Walmart, was a coach when Ethan played with the Monroe Youth Football League. “Parents like to think they had everything to do with it. But honestly, he’s a special kid. He’s got a work ethic,” the 50-year-old father said. “When he got that offer from Harvard, it was an overwhelming sense of pride, joy and hope.”
Walking the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, Ethan Medlin is carrying a rigorous load of four freshman classes. His Government 20 class examines “different set-ups of governments, democratic or authoritarian, on a global scale,” the teen said.
For expository writing, his topic is “humans, nature and the environment,” Medlin said. “I’m reading Thoreau and Rachel Carson, watching ‘Blackfish,’ and will write three essays.” He tested into intermediate Spanish after taking the language in high school. And an introduction to political sociology course will focus on current events.
“It’s a lot of reading, and I have a lot of deadlines,” he said. “But I expected it. It’s college.”
It’s Harvard, established in 1636, with all its history and mystique. Annenberg Hall, Medlin’s freshman dining hall, is a stunning example of Gothic architecture that brings to mind Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
For Medlin, it’s a place to gain knowledge and find new friends. “Right now, no one knows anyone here. When we’re in Annenberg Dining Hall, you meet someone new every time,” he said.
His closest college friendship so far is his roommate, Sahil Lauji, a freshman from Atlanta. “We really get along,” he said. “We have similar ideas. He’s a really nice and cool guy.”
At Harvard, all the learning doesn’t happen in classrooms. “The social scene here is clubs,” Medlin said. During a period called “comping week,” a time to try out for clubs, Medlin said he applied to join Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
“For fun, I’m thinking of Frisbee as a rec sport,” said Medlin, who also looks forward to seeing the Harvard-Yale football game Nov. 18. After that, he expects to be home for Thanksgiving.
Medlin is comfortable at Harvard, where some students come from expensive East Coast prep schools. The student body is diverse, he said, with people from low-income families as well as “stereotypical Harvard kids.”
“I don’t see people driving around in Mercedes,” Medlin said. And coming from modest means is not a disadvantage, he added.
“I’m proud to have come out of that, and grown from that,” he said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.