Al Brown is the definition of an inspiration, though he wouldn’t say that about himself.
“Not a lot of people stay the course —I’m not the norm, but I’m not special,” Brown said. “Our circumstances affect our choices, but you have a choice.”
Last month, Brown graduated from The Evergreen State College with a bachelor’s degree after previously transferring from Clover Park Technical College. What makes him unique among the hundreds of similar graduates is the fact that he spent the last several years homeless — moving from abandoned houses to shelters to sleeping on couches.
“My last month before graduation at Clover Park Tech, I lived in an abandoned house three miles away,” Brown said. “My first quarter after transferring to Evergreen, I slept on the kitchen floor at the men’s shelter. I didn’t miss my classes, and I turned in every assignment.”
Though he was homeless, no one would have known from interacting with him.
“‘He who has a why can survive any how,’” Brown said, quoting Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. “I knew there was a higher purpose for me, so it was a no-brainer to keep going.”
Brown said his higher purpose is to help others.
“I’m really interested in social psychology and how the environment affects our perceptions,” Brown said, adding that he’s working toward becoming a psychologist. “I’m intent on finding how I can help others follow through in tough times — I’m really passionate about it.”
He maintained solid grades while at CPTC and also interned at the YMCA, where he helped them raise more than $336,000.
“While I was sleeping in an abandoned house with the roaches, rats and raccoons, I was thinking how I would be able to use this experience to add value to someone else,” Brown said. “I worked on a campaign that helped the Lakewood YMCA earn more than $200,000. That was the first time they had exceeded their goal in their 24-year existence.”
Afterward he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 2015 YMCA Employee Annual Campaign.
“These people had no idea the person presenting to them was homeless,” Brown said. “When I told them, we raised an additional $136,000 in four minutes. I was able to do that because I shared my story about sleeping on the floor.”
Countless people offered him a key to a place to sleep that night, but he turned them down.
“I went back to the mission and stayed there for six more months,” Brown said. “I’ve moved 11 times this quarter. I have back problems from sleeping on the floor.”
Now Brown lives with a friend and has his own room — the first time he’s had his own room and a bed.
“I love my room,” Brown said. “It’s amazing how hardships will show you the importance of the small things. If you drink enough warm water, and you get some cold water you say, ‘Mmm this is some good water!’”
He said not only having a higher purpose matters, but also making good choices.
“The right choices don’t always feel good, but you have to make sacrifices,” Brown said. “I don’t anticipate challenges will be any less, but I’m better prepared because of the challenges I’ve overcome.”
Now Brown has his Bachelor of Social Science, which he completed in 11 quarters.
“That’s unheard of, and I completed my Associate in Human Services in a year, 114 credits in four quarters, and I finished on the President’s List. That’s pretty cool,” Brown said proudly.
Although he didn’t get accepted to the psychology programs he applied for at Harvard, Brown and other prestigious universities, he said he won’t be giving up any time soon.
“Oh, I’ll get in,” Brown said matter-of-factly.
Brown received multiple job offers upon graduation, and he said he’ll continue to work until being accepted.
“It’s been a good journey, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Brown said. “Because of what I’ve been through, I’m the person I am today.”
Even after all his accomplishments Brown said the thing he is most proud of is getting in shape.
“I’ve lost six inches and I’m most proud of that,” Brown said laughing.
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