The first night Megan Mangum was homeless, she slept in a park. It was a Wednesday in the middle of November in the mountain town of Idaho Springs, west of Denver. She was 15 and already working three jobs to help pay her way in the world.
Family life was tense, she said, sometimes worse.
“I thought the best thing for me to do was to be homeless,” she said.
In all, Mangum (IntPhys, MS’17), who’s 5’2” with crystal blue eyes and bubbly by nature, lived without a home for more than three years. She slept in a skateboard park and down by Clear Creek, in an old train car and in a silver 1995 Chevy Lumina she bought before she had a driver’s license. She found overnight babysitting jobs. She housesat. She couch surfed. On a few bone-chilling nights, she took shelter in dumpsters.
Some offers of refuge she refused because of the strings attached.
All the while Mangum was doing everything she could to get an education, balancing long hours of restaurant and lifeguard work with the demands of community college courses she’d been taking online, and paying for herself, since she was 14.
“Without school,” she said, “nothing was going to happen with my life.”
Now 26, Mangum is on track to graduate from CU Boulder with two degrees, a bachelor’s and a master’s, both in integrative physiology, plus a certificate in public health. She’s preparing for the MCAT and contemplating a future of real possibilities that once were mere fantasies. Most scenarios combine medical training with public policy work — a job with the Centers for Disease Control, perhaps, or the World Health Organization.
Not so many years ago, when Mangum was doing homework in her car outside Starbucks at 2 a.m., because the car was home and the wireless was free, a life of promise was an urgent hope and a distant prospect.
“There is no rational explanation as to where she unearths inspiration to improve, drive and overcome,” said Monica Hickox (MechEngr, MS’15), a housemate and close friend. “She is a fascinating study on the ‘nurture vs. nature’ front, because there was no nurture to instill the ‘fight like hell’ attitude.”
From her earliest days, Mangum liked learning. She was the kid who read dictionaries and encyclopedias straight through and started algebra in fourth grade. She read Little Women and Nancy Drew and, just because it was the longest book she’d ever seen, Moby Dick. She loved animals and imagined becoming a veterinarian.
No one in her family had been to college or aspired to it for her, she said. If college was the goal, getting there would be on her. The route was hazy, as it often is for first-generation students.
Either way, there's gonna be a 'Dr.' next to my name."
So Mangum eked out a living in small mountain towns while taking classes at Red Rocks Community College in Golden. Night school allowed her to work during the day, at restaurants and swimming pools. She paid tuition out of pocket, on a monthly plan. At work she got free meals and showers.
There were times when she had $5 a week for food and times she spent it on gas instead. She drove to school in weather that should have kept her off the roads.
The first time she missed a class, she said, “I cried all night.”
At 18 Mangum took a tiny studio apartment in Idaho Springs. She called it “The Cave.” There was no bed, no heat, no bathroom door and a raccoon in the wall. But it wasn’t the street or a car or a borrowed bed; it was hers.
In time, Mangum began taking classes at CU Denver, in nursing, in addition to community college classes. She got an internship at Swedish Medical Center, became certified as an EMT, then as a paramedic.
She and a friend took an apartment together, a better one. Mangum left school so she could do the internship, keep working and push toward a shortterm goal: “Saving, saving, saving.”
She met a science-minded boy, began a relationship and resumed her march toward a four-year degree.
In 2013, with two associates degrees already in hand, she applied to CU Boulder, where her boyfriend was entering a doctoral program. She wasn’t sure how she’d pay for it. At 22 and estranged from her family, she still wasn’t old enough then to apply for federal financial aid on her own.
But she remembers thinking, “If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do this.”
Admitted in April 2013, she exulted: “I couldn’t stop smiling.”
She took out her first loan and started paying it back immediately.
That August she entered a CU Boulder classroom as a student for the first time. It was a 9 a.m. Spanish section. She’d been doing college-level work for most of nine years and never been to class in daylight.
The romance didn’t work out, a bitter disappointment. But CU Boulder proved a revelation.
She encountered refreshingly foreign worlds and people and disciplines. She befriended chemical engineers and MBAs, musicians and anthropologists and war veterans becoming scientists. She joined a spring break service trip to Los Angeles, where she and other students volunteered in a soup kitchen and tutored kids on skid row. She found study-buddies and played intramural soccer and water polo.
“I had never been in a situation where my friends, who were also my peers, had this level of education,” she said. “When I was going to night classes, I just didn’t have time to make friends.”
Mangum has discovered strengths she didn’t know she had.
“I had a professor tell me, ‘People listen to you, people follow you and people want to work for you. Use that for good and don’t take that for granted.’”
Even amid better circumstances, she fears poverty. She likes to tell a story about the first time she heard from the CU Boulder bursar’s office. She didn’t open the email for days, terrified it was a bill she hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t afford. It turned out to be a scholarship, the first in a series. They eased her burdens and also gave her a sense of being wanted.
“Until getting here,” she said, “I was the only one rooting for me.”
In addition to being a full-time student, Mangum still works long hours most weeks, many of them at a Pearl Street Starbucks, where she’s a morning shift supervisor. On average, she sleeps between four and five hours a night. Last semester she took epidemiology, immunology, public health and medical sociology. She’s seeking a translator’s certificate in Spanish to set herself up for international work.
The goal was college; getting there was up to her. The route was hazy and often is for first-generation students.
Mangum has been invited to tell her story in public several times. She does it with a disarming mix of candor, humor and optimism. Rooms fall silent. Hearts melt. People rise to their feet and clap.
They approach afterward, business cards in hand.
“Those are things that wouldn’t have happened unless I came here,” she said.
Sometimes students come up to her, too: “I thought I was the only one who was a poor kid here,” they say.
Today Mangum lives in a house in South Boulder, the same one for nearly three years now, shared with five roommates, a mix of fellow students and young alumni. They study engineering, music, education. They talk ideas, football, the rent, the future.
When Mangum first moved in, Hickox recalled, “Cookies with ‘I can’t wait to meet you all after my schedule isn’t so nuts’ notes stuck on them would appear in the kitchen overnight.”
Mangum takes nothing for granted and is dismayed when others seem to.
A classroom clicker survey about Colorado’s minimum wage prompted her to speak up one day: Few classmates had any idea what it was.
“I raised my hand,” she said. “The minimum wage is $8.31 in the state of Colorado. It hasn’t always been over eight dollars. It was stuck at $7.78. And waiters and waitresses make this…” (It rose to $9.30 on Jan. 1.)
Many of Mangum’s campus friends also have nontraditional backgrounds. Lots are military veterans. They’re comrades in duress and companions in delight. She and her pal Brandon, a Navy vet, attended every CU home football game last season. Her phone’s lockscreen is a picture of Chip.
Megan Mangum hasn’t mapped out her future in permanent marker. It’s a luxury of her improbable new life that she faces some good choices.
Like whether to apply to medical school, a doctoral program or both.
“Either way,” she said, “there’s gonna be a ‘Dr.’ next to my name.”
It’ll be a lot more work. But Mangum finds comfort in forward momentum.
“I’m almost afraid to stop,” she said.
Eric Gershon edits the Coloradan
Note: This story has been updated from the version that appeared in print.
Photos courtesy Glenn Asakawa and Megan Mangum