Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Benjamin Hart: Overcoming homelessness to shine at Cuyamaca College

Benjamin Hart
Benjamin Hart has a grade point average pushing 4.0, is on the Cuyamaca College Vice President’s List, is a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and was recently named to the All-California Community College Academic Team as among the top students in the state. Now, Hart has his sights set on transferring to UC San Diego, earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and opening his own business.

It has been, Hart says, a stunning turnaround for someone who spent more than a decade living on the streets as part of San Diego’s homeless population.

“I’m a pretty determined person,” said Hart, 34. “If you put one foot in front of the other in the right direction, eventually you’re going to get to where you want to go.”

Hart embodies how Cuyamaca College can help students transform their lives and create a future secure for themselves and their families."Ben has overcome major life and death obstacles that many of us can relate to and struggle with,” said Cindy Morrin, an associate professor of counseling and Phi Theta Kappa advisor. “His story is an example for everyone.”

Hart said he never gave going to college a thought in his younger days, dropping out of Mission Bay High School and leaving to live with his father in San Antonio, Texas, where he earned his GED but accomplished little else. 

Drugs and alcohol were a bigger priority. Several years later and tired of Texas, Hart returned to San Diego and found himself living in an alley behind a gas station in Normal Heights, digging for food in trash cans, spending on alcohol whatever earnings he made moving furniture. 

Hitting bottom, Hart checked into a detox program and spent a year in a residential treatment facility. Finally sober, his life was turning around. He found a job with the Alpha Project serving the homeless in San Diego. Before long, he had worked his way into being a case manager. Working with another nonprofit, People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), Hart connected the chronically homeless to services aimed at keeping them off the street and maintaining sobriety.

He moved on after realizing there was little room for advancement because he lacked a formal education. His journey changed course while working as a service writer assistant at a Normal Heights auto shop. The shop’s owner encouraged Hart to  enroll in Cuyamaca College’s automotive technology program, a program the owner, Mike Magers, had completed some 30 years prior.

Hart dove in. During his first semester in fall 2017, he enrolled in 16 units while working more than 50 hours each week to support his wife and their then three – now four – children. 

Hart was driven.

“If you’re looking for an automotive technology program, you can’t go wrong by coming to Cuyamaca College,” he said. “They have great teachers and super intelligent people. I have yet to have a bad experience.”

Indeed, with just one year of automotive technology classes under his belt, Hart was hired as a full-time automotive technician. Before long, he was offered an even better job just blocks from Cuyamaca College. Meanwhile, he has acquired two Automotive Service Excellence certifications, and he plans to obtain his Master Technician status in the near future. 

Along the way, he hooked up with Phi Theta Kappa. Hart is on track to graduate with an associate degree in automotive technology in 2020 and is looking to own and operate his own automotive repair business while earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. 

The secret to his success? “It’s simple,” Hart said. “All you have to do is show up, go to class, listen to the teacher, do the work, and read the material. I mean, that’s pretty much it. They’re giving it all to you. You just have to be willing to take it.”