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New school year marks new beginnings for formerly unhoused Virginia student

Kyle Jacobs stands inside a greenhouse
Crixell Matthews
Kyle Jacobs stands inside a greenhouse at the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University. Jacobs graduated from VSU in May with an agriculture degree and is now a student at Columbia University. (Photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Twenty-six-year-old Kyle Jacobs has been through a lot. He experienced abuse as a child and was placed in foster care as a result of it. He’s spent time in juvenile detention facilities and has experienced homelessness. This year, he started his master’s degree at Columbia University in New York after graduating from Virginia State University in May.

He was sad his grandma wasn’t there to see him walk across the stage, as she died last summer.

“She was a really, really tough lady. And she put in so much work to see me succeed,” Jacobs said.

His grandmother eventually got him out of foster care and got custody of him when he was a teenager. He enrolled at Armstrong High School in Richmond, where one of his teachers gave him a book and encouraged him to keep reading. Jacobs had started reading Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, as well as books like Harry Potter, while he’d been detained.

“He just challenged me to be an intellectual rather than a menace, and that made a huge impact on my life,” Jacobs said.

His Armstrong teacher and principal also encouraged him to apply for colleges.

Jacobs started college at Virginia State University in 2015, but after a year there decided to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University. But he was only at VCU for three semesters. When his hours at work got cut, he could no longer afford to pay for housing.

He said he spent at least two years living either in his car or in his grandma’s abandoned house in Richmond, which had neither running water nor heating and air conditioning.

“If it got too cold outside, I just went to go stay in my car. I had a dog at the time, so I had to make sure he was warm,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs wasn’t sure he could reenroll in college but decided to give it a shot. He used a day of PTO in 2019 to drive to the Virginia State campus and go to the admissions office. He was pleasantly surprised to hear that it wouldn’t be a problem for him to resume classes there.

“I almost cried to be honest. I was really appreciative,” Jacobs said.

He graduated from VSU this past May with a degree in agriculture, and he’s now part of the Columbia HBCU Fellowship Program. Jacobs is pursuing a master’s in sustainability management. He said he wants to work on global development issues, like reducing poverty and hunger in developing countries.

It’s a passion he said was sparked while studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, one of the first things he did after going back to school at VSU.

“I definitely don't think I have the most usual life, but when I saw the lives of some of the children in Brazil and what it was like to live in a developing country, that kind of like really broke my heart. And I knew that I had to figure out some way to help them,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs moved to New York last month and said he’s really enjoying his fellowship program so far. He said his advisor, John Williams, has gone above and beyond to make sure that he feels welcome and succeeds.

Since the fellowship covers tuition, room and board — and includes a stipend for books — Jacobs has been able to explore some of New York’s culture with other students in his program from HBCUs across the country.

“We spent some time in Little Italy, in Chinatown,” Jacobs said. “That was pretty fun. We got some dumplings.”

Jacobs said he’s also enjoying his classes, including one about environmental justice he recently enrolled in. He’s already joined some campus organizations and is trying to decide if he should apply for Ph.D. or MBA programs next. He’s got his eye on either Columbia or Harvard’s MBA programs and is looking forward to attending the National Black MBA Alumni Association conference in a couple of weeks.

“I want to take advantage of it now, before I go back into the workforce,” Jacobs said.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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