From Cape Verde to the U.S., this single mom found education through Boston’s Jeremiah Program
Boston’s Jeremiah Program helps single mothers find access to education.
The lights were bright overhead and the three chairs she lay across were stiff, but Noime Alves squeezed her eyes shut tight, determined to fit in a few minutes of sleep before her dance culture class was scheduled to begin. The 23-year-old had just worked an overnight shift as a security guard at Hynes Convention Center and taken the T directly to school, where she had an hour to kill before her classes would begin.
But she couldn’t sleep. She was too frustrated.
Alves, a first-generation college student and mother of a 4-year-old boy, immigrated to the U.S. from Cape Verde in 2011 when she was one month pregnant at age 18. She’s a student at Endicott College’s Boston campus, where she receives assistance from the Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit designed to help low-income moms, most of whom are single, complete their college degrees as part of a full-time program.
Most days, school is a welcome refuge from her job and home life. But on that October morning, she was annoyed. Her “World Dance Culture’’ teacher was playing YouTube videos in class yet again. Alves felt like going to school had become a waste of time.
She squirmed in her seat and tapped her foot anxiously as she watched the video, then lashed out at the professor for not making class more challenging.
“You’re the worst,’’ she remembers telling him when the clip ended. “This class is the worst.’’
It was then that Sendy Vaughn Suazo, the life-skills coach for the Jeremiah Program, stepped in to pull Alves out of class. She told her to take the rest of the day off, go home and get some rest. So Alves returned to the crowded three-bedroom apartment in Dorchester that she shares with her extended family, where she took a long nap. She woke up, felt much better, and called the professor to apologize.
“In the program, they understand how hard it is,’’ said Alves, who was one of the Jeremiah Program’s first students when it launched in Boston in the fall of 2014. “I’m grateful they let me go home and sleep and were so understanding about the way that I was feeling and all that I have going on. A lot of that is the teachers they hired, and the other students who understand what I’m going through.’’
Many students, like Alves, are both first-generation college students and immigrants.
Full-time tuition costs a little over $8,000 a year, but most students receive Pell Grants and aid from the college, so their costs are minimal. The directors help them find reputable child care for their kids, hand out laptops and provide a weekly T pass to cover the cost of getting to and from school. But more meaningful than financial assistance is the support they receive from their fellow classmates.
The 19 women in the program know what it’s like to work more than 40 hours a week while going to school. They know what it means to be halfway through responding to an essay question, only to be interrupted by a little voice saying: “What’s for dinner?’’ They know what it’s like to spend time wiping away their child’s tears when, exhausted and stressed out, they want to wipe away their own.
“These are low-income moms who are told that they’re going to stay impoverished, who are told that they’ll never be able to work and get their degrees at the same time,’’ said Emilia Diamant, the program’s executive director. “They’re shy. They’re scared. They want better for themselves but they don’t feel like their ideas matter. And we need to make sure they’re ready to take this program on because we know it won’t be easy.’’
The women gather every day at 19 Temple Place, a slim brick building sandwiched between a boutique and a trendy “new American’’ restaurant in downtown Boston. Community action groups occupy the first few floors. In the middle, there’s a drug recovery high school. On the top floor—number 5—is Endicott’s tiny campus, where Alves and 18 other full-time students who are part of the Jeremiah Program sit in class five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
It takes less than a minute to walk from one blue carpeted end of campus to the other. There are three classrooms set up with long tables and projectors, two computer labs, an office, and a seating area with two couches and a table. Alves thinks it looks like an apartment, not only because of its size, but because it feels like home.
It’s a far cry from the college she had imagined attending: the one with a picturesque campus, a competitive degree program, and a sense of school spirit. A straight-A student at Boston International High School, she had wanted to go to a school she could brag about.
At the very least, she wanted to go somewhere her friends had heard of before.
“No one knows what Endicott Boston is,’’ she said. “When I came to America, I got good grades and I thought that meant I would be going to a college that I would tell people about and that they’d be like, ‘oh wow.’ But those types of colleges aren’t made for students like me.’’
Boston is America’s unofficial college town, with more than 100 colleges and universities and 250,000 students in the greater metropolitan area, most of whom are studying full-time and who enter the university right after high school graduation.
But colleges haven’t adapted their structures to accommodate a growing number of “non-traditional’’ college students — defined by the National Center for Education Statistics as students older than 25 who are financially independent, attend school part-time, and have children.
In the 2011–2012 academic year, single parents made up 15 percent of the undergraduate population, according to the American Council on Education. Many of them qualify for child care vouchers, food stamps and housing assistance, programs that come with a vast and confusing web of paperwork.
“In between classes, they’re spending time on hold with government agents,’’ Diamant said. “Other times, they’re standing in long lines. The system is setting them up to be scared of the process, and because leading their families and going to school is isolating enough, it’s nice to have help and support from people on staff who can get them advice about filling the paperwork.’’
The Jeremiah Program was founded in Minneapolis in the early ‘90s after city officials called on community leaders to devise ways to break the city’s cycle of poverty. They went straight to the people who were affected most: low-income women (who experience poverty at a rate that’s about 38 percent higher than men).
The Jeremiah Program follows a “two-generational approach’’ to ending poverty, which encourages simultaneous education for both parents and their kids. The model is based on the belief that high-quality early childhood education isn’t enough to stop poverty. If a child leaves an educational program and returns to a house that’s not financially stable, the child will suffer and the positive effects of the program will be dulled.
It’s with this in mind that the Jeremiah Program opened a brick-and-mortar campus in Minneapolis in 1998. Eighteen families moved on campus, where children attended day care while their mothers went to class. The students also received individualized academic guidance, career counseling, and instruction in a female empowerment class.
Diamant said the empowerment element is central to the program’s mission. Many of the women are often told they’ll never be able to succeed simply because they’re young mothers, she said.
The Jeremiah Program now serves roughly 300 women and children in Minnesota each year, and Gloria Perez, the Jeremiah Program’s president and CEO, said more than 90 percent of those who complete the program are employed or continuing their educations.
The program has also expanded to St. Paul, Austin, Fargo and, most recently, Boston. Unlike the other cities, vacant real estate in Boston is essentially non-existent. The newest branch of the program has been forced to adapt to an urban landscape.
Perez thought Boston might be the ideal place for an urban version of the program after meeting Richard Wylie, president of Endicott College, which offers a Keys to Degrees program that also caters to single parents. They formed an agreement called the Jeremiah Endicott Program that allows women in the Jeremiah Program to take classes developed for a two-year associate’s degree curriculum at Endicott’s Boston campus.
The pilot version of the program was funded by a grant from Ascend, which is part of the Aspen Ideas Institute. But now it’s funded by Endicott Boston and the national Jeremiah Program.
Even though she knew the program would supposedly benefit both her and her son, Alves wasn’t convinced. She was accepted to schools that she considered more well-known, including Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts. But rejection soon cast a shadow over the bright dream she had of herself walking around a beautiful manicured campus among other young, eager students.
Administrators told her that no, even though she was on welfare, she couldn’t get more financial aid. No, she couldn’t get an extension to pay the $500 deposit at Suffolk. No, she couldn’t get a work-study job on campus that would give her enough time to spend with her son, Nehemiah.
Her high school counselor urged her to reconsider Endicott. Alves realized that, more than anything else, she needed to go to a school that would tell her what she could do, not what she couldn’t.
“It was more important for me to go to a school than to not go at all,’’ she said. “So here I am.’’
While at home in Dorchester on a recent afternoon, Nehemiah, a talkative 4-year-old with curly brown ringlets, sat coloring beside his mother as she did her homework. She pointed to a page in the empowerment booklet that discusses 12 steps to take when you get angry. Alves said she thinks of the steps often when her family members tease her for wanting to talk about what she’s learning in school.
She’s the first person in the family to attend college and the only fluent English speaker. That means, in addition to working and taking class full-time, she’s the family’s full-time interpreter.
“They’ll laugh at me and say, ‘Oh, aren’t you smart,’ because they don’t know what I’m talking about,’’ she said. “But I’m excited about what I’m learning and want someone to share it with. I think about what I’m learning in the empowerment class, and it’s not just learning how to be a better student. I learned how to say how I was feeling. It helped me be a better mother, and a better person.’’
Even though she might look the same as she did a year ago, about five feet tall with big brown eyes, Alves said she can now stand taller. The frightened teenager who moved to the U.S. from Cape Verde unable to speak English is now a woman who feels in control of her future.
Much, of that, she said, is due to Jeremiah’s empowerment course. During the 10-week class, Alves said she learned how to better communicate with the people around her.
A month after Alves began school, the father of her son moved to the U.S.—and into her home in Dorchester with the rest of her family. They got married, and it was a big adjustment for both of them. Their work schedules don’t line up, and since Alves is often at school, she rarely sees him. She emphasized how much she loves her husband, and said she has a much better relationship because of the advice she received in the empowerment class.
“Going to school is the most important thing to me,’’ she said. “No one else in my family speaks English, no one else goes to school. I’m all alone in that. It can make you want to quit. But the people at Jeremiah understand.’’
The Boston program has visibly grown in the past year. In May, the program hired Diamant as the executive director and, a few months before that, they added a life skills coach. Diamant said they’re enrolling new students every month, and may consider expanding the program to other cities.
Nehemiah looked up at his mother as she wrote an answer to an essay question.
“What are you doing?’’ he wanted to know.
“Shhh,’’ she said, then held a finger to her lips and looked back down at her paper.
“My mom does homework and I do, too,’’ the 4-year-old said. “I like school. And dinosaurs.’’
Alves looked up from her workbook and laughed.
“I tell him I like school, but I don’t brag about it on Facebook like some of my friends,’’ she said. “I’m getting all A’s but I don’t post my grades. I don’t like to boast. It’s not about that. It’s about setting a good example and finishing my education so I can be somebody.’’
Nehemiah reached over and drew a long line on his mother’s worksheet. “Me, too.’’