Mike Blackwell (MLA '23) tries so hard to fit in, but he sticks out like a sore thumb. When I first met him on the benches in front of Van Pelt Library in September, where he’d been sleeping for the past few weeks, he was decked out in Penn gear from his hat, to his shirt, to his laptop stickers. He fumbled with his phone to input a classmate’s contact information—his screensaver was a big blue–and–red "P." The only indicators that he wasn’t an undergraduate student—or a well–meaning tourist—were his unshaven scruff and the four mismatched bags he carried with him everywhere. They contain all of his belongings.
In late August 2021, 67–year–old Mike arrived in Philadelphia from McAllen, Texas, a city that his wife describes as “10 minutes from Mexico,” with nothing but his bags and an acceptance to Penn’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program. An Ivy League education was a lifelong dream of Mike’s, but after nearly a decade of undergraduate education and an eccentric career as a minister, writer, and martial artist, it took him a while to get around to it.
Arriving on campus 1,500 miles away from his wife and two kids, with his funds dwindling dangerously low, Mike was homeless from late August to late September. Because he couldn’t afford graduate student housing on top of tuition, he slept in odd outdoor spots around campus. After a run–in with Student Intervention Services (SIS) early this fall, the graduate student got off of the streets but sunk into thousands of dollars of debt.
Mike spent most of his life in South Texas chasing knowledge wherever he could. He started his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University Kingsville, near where he grew up, then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, and finished his bachelor’s at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. His studies spanned the humanities, from speech and the Bible to psychology and sociology. He eventually graduated with a degree in biblical studies—which Mike jokes is “like getting a degree from Clown College, as far as employability goes.”
The whole process took him about eight years, simply because Mike wanted it to. He frowns, thinking about the modern–day rat race to attend competitive colleges and get out quick to climb the corporate ladder. “Back then, they didn’t care. You could go [to college] as long as you wanted.”
In undergrad, Mike claims that he was an average student—he didn’t flunk, but “just sort of passed the time.” However, after the nearly decade–long process, Mike developed a newfound “love [of] learning for learning’s sake.”
So, after finally graduating and getting married, he went back to school. Mike split his time between work, family, and correspondence classes at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, studying Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, and other Semitic languages. Before the birth of the internet, Mike took courses on the other side of the country by mailing materials back and forth with the university.
After studying at Wisconsin, 30 years passed before Mike was a student again.
In the interim, Mike filled his time with an odd array of careers that kept him in the orbit of educational institutions. First, Mike served as a minister at a fundamentalist church, but the group’s philosophy often conflicted with his educational background. Mike clashed with the church’s discouragement of higher education and interpretations of the Bible, which he could read directly because of his work with Semitic languages. He parted ways with the church, clinging to his faith but recognizing that he “didn’t believe like [he] used to.”
His next unconventional gig came from the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley. Mike received a call from the Kinesiology Department, which was searching for a karate instructor. He accepted the job teaching martial arts at the university, and he earned certifications as a physical trainer, strength trainer, and yoga instructor.
That’s how he met Kathrin Dodds, a friend who works in the Office of Institutional Accreditation at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. During daily trips to the weight room with her husband and other members of the staff, Dodds got to know Mike, who worked at the gym part–time.
Dodds recalls that Mike was a fascinating conversationalist–his wealth of knowledge spanned beyond the small world of South Texas. A former librarian, she fostered his love for writing, and she has been an avid supporter of his published and unpublished works.
Mike describes himself as a “late bloomer” when it comes to his written work. He didn’t start writing until he was in his 40s, but now he has published a novel that delivers the first–person account of a young serial killer—a sort of “case study of evil," he says. With a slight smile, Dodds tells me that Mike’s work is “not for everyone,” but “fascinating” nonetheless. Mike and Dodds contend that writing is his real passion. The decision to apply to Penn for an MLA with a concentration in creative writing was easy.
Amid the atmosphere of elitism and exclusivity that characterizes institutions of higher education, Mike saw Penn as a breath of fresh air. He remembers hearing that Penn was “the Ivy League without the ivory tower,” and the MLA program offered him the opportunity to be a normal student, unlike other elite graduate programs, where the students aren’t integrated with the rest of the school because “the poor little Harvard elites feel threatened.”
But after Mike applied and was accepted, the pandemic made in–person learning in Philadelphia impossible. MLA students were given the option to defer enrollment, so rather than begin in the fall, Mike started online classes in spring of 2021. He finally started attending classes in person this fall, a decision he tells me was motivated by his dreams of the Ivy League and his next literary endeavor.
Mike’s next book, in contrast with his serial killer debut, chronicles the relationship between a Penn student and a Drexel student, so he wanted to get a feel for life on both campuses. As a nontraditional graduate student without sufficient funds, Mike couldn’t have the experience of living in the dorms, or attending parties where the groups may interact, but he could live adjacent to them—a fly on the wall of their campus lives. Despite his unresolved living situation, he was content.
Mike described homelessness matter of factly, even dryly glamorizing the ability to live in his academic environment, to split his nights between the steps of Van Pelt and Fisher Fine Arts. He anticipated cold Philly winters with nonchalance and aplomb, assured that he would have figured something out by then.
Shirla Blackwell, Mike’s wife, who still lives in their Texas home, recognizes that the situation wasn’t ideal, but she’s not surprised that he packed up his bags and moved across the country with little–to–no plans. After almost 40 years of marriage, she’s grown accustomed to his adventures. In March of 2019, Mike hatched his plan to pursue further education after Shirla told him, “If you can dream it, do it.” He repeated nearly the same line to me during our conversation.
Talking to Mike, it’s easy to view his life with rose–colored glasses. Until I spoke to Kathryn Watterson, a professor in the English department at Penn, I failed to grasp the gravity of Mike’s situation.
Mike is a student in Watterson’s graduate course “Writing and Remembering: A Memoir Workshop,” and the two quickly became friends. After the first day of class, Watterson casually asked Mike where he lived. When Mike told her that he slept around campus, she was shocked. She’d noticed him lugging his 40–pound bags around (which he says felt like “running a marathon” as he walked from one side of campus to the other), but thought nothing of it. There was no shortage of characters in her creative writing classes.
When classes were canceled after the record–setting flooding from Hurricane Ida, Mike emailed Watterson telling her that he was sad to miss her lesson. She realized he must have spent the night outside, facing the floodwaters, and began to consider the details of his stay.
Where did he shower? In the library bathrooms, with sink water, early in the morning.
Where did he spend most of the day? Studying at Starbucks or in the libraries.
Where did he store his belongings? With him, all of the time.
Having nowhere to turn when he arrived on campus this semester, Mike reached out to members of his new community for help. He contacted a support organization for first–generation, low–income students in search of affordable housing options and a food pantry. In September, the group redirected his concerns to SIS, a branch of the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life that supports the Penn community through crisis intervention and prevention.
When Mike received a call from Lauren Rudick, the director of SIS, he thought maybe the organization could alleviate his situation. SIS manages an emergency fund for graduate students, which offers temporary housing for displaced individuals, but they do not cover costs of attendance, including long–term graduate student housing. Applications for funds take at least two weeks to process. Still, Mike had hope. But by the end of the conversation, he was sorely disappointed.
“How about we buy you a plane ticket back to Texas?” Mike recalls Rudick saying over the phone. The response was a slap in the face. After 50 years of dreaming and a semester of studying for his degree, Mike would have to transition from in–person classes back to online classes, as the University has no protocols in place for graduate students experiencing long–term homelessness.
Mike refused that option, insisting that there must be a way for the University to support him—maybe by connecting him with students looking for roommates or directing him to community organizations that combat food insecurity. SIS pressed on. The only possible solutions were to take out loans to fork over thousands of dollars for overpriced graduate student housing, or leave campus entirely. The financial aid resources for nontraditional graduate students who had already begun their degrees were few and far between.
The final blow: “Maybe you would be happier at a Texas university.” Mike recalls Rudick saying this exactly over the phone. After studying at three Texas universities and working at another, he found the words particularly cruel.
“Everything this [SIS] said to me involved me going back to Texas, which I found incredibly offensive,” Mike says. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here at Penn, and we know what you’re even willing to sacrifice to come here. Let’s see if we can help you out.’ No, [SIS] wanted to ship me out of the damn place.”
Street repeatedly reached out to Rudick directly and SIS at large for comment, but they have yet to reply.
Mike’s options were dwindling, and the weather was getting cold. He recalls his last nights sleeping on the benches outside of Fisher Fine Arts. He was often woken by students drunkenly stumbling through the bushes to take a leak inches from his face, or by couples audibly making out on the bench across from where he slept. He reckoned with his future on a wintery campus and decided to take out loans to pay $1500 per month in rent at Chestnut Square Apartments on Drexel’s campus. The total amount of the loans was more than the mortgage on his home in Texas. Even though he moved in during the last week of September, he had to pay for the whole month, Watterson tells me. She’s sympathetic to his financial burden but notes that he seems happy in his new home.
“I think he can be himself now, more fully,” she says.
Shirla says they’ll probably have to sell their house to pay off the loans. She sounds so cheerful that she may be joking, but there’s truth to her words. The Blackwells may not pay off the debt in their lifetime.
Mike is soured by the costs, but they don’t trigger any kind of revelation.
I spoke with Mike again in early October, after he settled into his new apartment. He launches into an impassioned tangent about the ways universities disenfranchise their students and cherry–pick from a basket of elites, and I realize that this “Caucasian guy from deep South Texas,” as Dodds describes him, is more self–aware than most Penn students I know. He recognizes that universities are businesses masquerading as nonprofits, and that investing in “diversity” often doesn’t mean investing in low–income students of color—or supporting 67–year–old graduate students who’ve barely ventured outside of Texas.
Dodds first reached out to Street about covering Mike’s story. At the time, she was focused on finding him a safe place to live and giving him the ability to put food on the table. Now that that’s been forcibly covered, she hopes he finds friends in his new community.
“If people would just converse with him, he would love that,” Dodds says. “If they [read this article] and see him on campus, they should just go up to him and start a conversation.”
And she’s right. At the end of our conversation, he asks about my own life. What am I studying, and how do I like the campus? We chat about culture shock from moving to Philly from the Deep South; our places in a complex, vast institution; and writing (he’s currently reading Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations). He invites me to find him any time to solicit advice or chat about my day. When I leave the bench, reeling from our discourse, I look at everyone I pass a bit differently.