For a few days each week, Josh Knight goes to class on the subway. He has to: he's on his way to work at the Charlestown YMCA. But he's also a first-year student in the honors program at Framingham State University.
It means that even as he boards an Orange Line car bound for North Station, he might be tuned in, via Zoom, to a seminar discussion of education reform or moral reasoning, often trying to be heard in class over the rattle.
Knight works, he says, to time his comments to the "lulls," like when the train stops moving. "I try to shoot my point in, then stop. But this thing is ridiculous," he laughs.
As he cranes forward to listen, you can't help but notice the class ring — with a glinting blue stone — on his right hand. He wears it every day.
“It took me to [age] 23 to graduate from high school," Knight says. "But it’s one of my proudest accomplishments. Because I didn’t go through what everyone else went through to graduate high school.”
He was home-schooled, taking virtual classes at Lighthouse Christian Academy — so remote learning isn't new to him. Neither is juggling a host of competing priorities and a lot of unpredictability.
But you might wonder: why this year? Why not postpone college and focus on work and home, like thousands of other students did in Massachusetts alone? Why battle the MBTA for his participation grade?
For Knight, it comes back to his ring.
“The other day, I was feeling a little doubtful about what I could and couldn’t do," he says. "And I looked at [the ring], and I’m like, this is proof: that I’m a hard worker, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to get wherever I wanna go.”
There are a lot of places Knight wants to go — and he sees college as a "necessary next step" along the way.
He wants to set the scoring record for the Framingham State Rams basketball team (once play resumes). He wants to build his skills in computer science — following in the footsteps of his father Peter, a longtime engineer. He wants to start a business, launch a podcast, and manage his time better — and more.
So far, he has met more than his share of resistance.
At 23, Knight is the head of household for a family of five, including his parents, his nephew and an infant niece. He works full-time as the associate aquatics director at the Charlestown Y: monitoring each floor of the complex, checking chlorine levels, supervising lifeguards and lifeguarding himself.
The pandemic struck just as Knight was about to earn his diploma. He wound up on a springtime furlough when the facility was forced to close temporarily. The Constitution Inn — part of the same complex — also closed in March. It had been home to the Knights, crammed into two bedrooms, for years.
At their current apartment in Dorchester, his mother Florence explained how that surprise closure threw the family into the city's market of short-term rentals, including seven separate moves during the pandemic. To cover the expensive rates at a series of Airbnbs, the family relied on a combination of Josh’s pay and — during his furlough — boosted unemployment checks.
It was, sadly, not a new experience.
“We’ve battled with [homelessness] for more than half my life — literally," Knight says. "Shelters, finding places, sleeping on floors, no floor to sleep on at all. Outside, on a beach: we’ve done it all.”
In September, the family tracked down an apartment at the edge of Franklin Park that Josh's salary could cover, if only barely. It's got enough room to take care of his infant niece and, at the same time, online classes for him and his nephew. Sitting around the living room, the Knights seem relieved.
It has been a punishing decade. As stable housing remained elusive, three of Josh's half-brothers passed away.
The Knights are devout Christians, and their faith tends to brighten even those darkest moments. But clearly, Florence and Peter also believe in their son.
“He’s suffered a lot of loss and displacement, and kept his strength — and focus," Florence says. "To have gone through so much that he has gone through..." She tears up. Josh comes over to hug her, but he doesn't say much.
Knight may be uncommonly driven. But his circumstances themselves aren’t exactly uncommon in higher education today.
Last year, a Temple University survey of students at Massachusetts public colleges and universities found that 43% of respondents had experienced some form of housing insecurity in the prior year.
A spokesperson for Framingham State said the survey found comparable results among their students: 37% faced some housing insecurity, while 34% had had trouble sourcing adequate food. (Those numbers may be inflated somewhat; fewer than 1 in 10 Framingham State students responded, likely skewing the results.)
It's clear that Josh Knight is a devoted son. Briskly on his way to work, he can fire off maxims learned from his father, who emigrated from Jamaica.
'Trial and error, trial and error, trial and success' — that's my favorite," he says. "My ring is a perfect example of that."
For the most part, Knight tends not to dwell on the past or its struggles — instead, he runs on optimism inherited from his parents, the Bible and Tony Robbins. And yet he's aware that he has a long, uncertain way to go to earn a degree.
While many of his friends started college, on the spot he can only think of one that finished. And with YMCA revenue down, he learned in late November that he’ll face a second furlough in December. (He’s applying for work at another branch nearer to home.)
Before his shift starts, Knight makes it clear: he does feel doubts and worries sometimes. But they’re not about the big questions — housing, safety, survival for his family.
“My stress may come from other things, like ‘damn, I have to do this paper,’" Knight says. "Which is pretty weird — seeing that I’m not stressing about home, but stressing about a paper? But it’s like, I know it’s gonna be OK. No matter what happens.”
For his part, Knight acknowledges the irony at heart of his story. He's hopeful and hard-working, but only because he hit a rocky bottom that most Americans never approach. In a word, he says, it's "weird."
And yet there are many students facing similar challenges across the state and country who are still seeking their degrees this fall, based on faith in themselves — and in spite of everything else.
This segment aired on December 1, 2020.
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