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Bringing Mom Back to School

Revisiting the community: New MET scholarship gives Boston and Chelsea parents a second chance


JoAn Blake (MET’11) (left) and Camille Lungelow (MET’11) are the first recipients of Metropolitan College’s Scholarship for Parents. The scholarship is awarded to parents who have children enrolled in the Boston or Chelsea public schools; it pays for half of the recipient’s tuition. Photograph by Jessica Hill

The ways Boston University and its students reach into the community around us are an ongoing source of fascination — and good journalism. These connections and collaborations might at first glance seem to be one-way streets, but as each of the stories from the past school year we’re highlighting this week reveals, give and take, offering and receiving, are intimately linked.

Some days, when JoAn Blake is rushing to class, a messenger bag loaded with textbooks slung casually over her shoulder, she glances across the Boston University campus and thinks, I can’t believe I’m here.

A 40-year-old mother of three, Blake (MET’11) is twice the age of the average BU student, and her path to the University has been less conventional than most. Three years ago, Blake buried her eldest child, and when she “finally awoke from the haze of pain and grief,” she says, she decided the best way to honor her daughter was to return to school herself.

Thanks to a new scholarship offered by Metropolitan College, Blake is making good on her promise. She is one of the first two winners of the Scholarship for Parents, which is awarded to parents who have children enrolled in the Boston or Chelsea public schools and pays for half their tuition for however many years it takes the recipients to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“We are thrilled to offer such a substantial scholarship to Boston-area families,” says Jay Halfond, dean of MET. “It is our hope that the public school students follow in their parents’ footsteps and pursue their education through college and beyond, perhaps even at Boston University.”

To be eligible for the scholarship, applicants must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and have at least six college credits from a different school and a 3.0 or higher grade point average. Recipients may enroll in any of MET’s 15 on-campus bachelor’s degree programs. “The scholarship is quite unique,” says Katherine Meyer, MET’s community programs manager. “While there are many scholarship programs that target underprivileged youths, I’m unaware of any that reach out to parents.” While only 2 have been awarded thus far, Meyer says that eventually MET will give up to 10 scholarships annually.

Blake never expected to be able to attend BU. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she and her family settled in Dorchester in 1974 — the year a federal judge ordered the desegregation of Boston’s public schools. She gave birth to her daughter, Shaina, during her senior year in high school. Blake enrolled in Northeastern University, but dropped out after only one year. “Having an infant and being in school was just too much,” she says.

Over the next decade, Blake married, divorced, and had three more children: Charles, now 17, and 14-year-old twins Ryan and Renecia. But in 1997, her life began to unravel. Doctors diagnosed Shaina with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that primarily affects children and teenagers, and Blake was told that Shaina had six months to live.

But Shaina proved everyone wrong. Thanks to an experimental treatment, her cancer went into remission, and she earned a black belt in karate, joined the cheerleading squad, and graduated from Trinity Catholic High School in Newton, Mass. She was a sophomore at Mount Ida College when she died in a car accident.

For years, Blake juggled two jobs — waitressing and personal training — to support her family. But after losing Shaina, she enrolled at Roxbury Community College to study biological science. “Clinical research saved my daughter’s life, and she went to college to help children like herself,” she says. “I vowed that I would continue what she started.”

Last winter, Blake’s fiancé heard about the Metropolitan College scholarship. “He said, ‘Finish what you’ve started, and apply for this,’” she recalls. Although she already had 46 credits and a 3.9 grade point average at RCC, Blake hesitated. “I remember thinking to myself, people like me, they don’t go to BU,” she says.

As she speaks, Blake absently clutches her keychain — a woven replica of the Jamaican flag made by Renecia. “But then I thought, burying your child is the worst thing in the world,” she says, a catch in her voice. “And I did that. So I know that there’s nothing that I can’t do.”

Blake enrolled in MET’s biomedical laboratory and clinical sciences degree program and began taking classes in January. She’s taking a full load — three courses a semester — and she’s determined to deliver a valedictorian speech in 2011. “I have no regrets,” she says. “The doctors said Shaina had only six months, and I had her for nine more years. Life is for the living, and my daughter lived. So I owe it to her to live, too.”

Camille Lungelow (MET’11), the second Scholarship for Parents recipient, is a 28-year-old single mother of two. She learned about the scholarship from a flier given out at a book bag drive at Roxbury’s Shelbourne Community Center. At the time, she had a small cosmetology business and was taking evening psychology classes at Cambridge College.

One of 11 children, Lungelow grew up in Dorchester and Roxbury. She was a gifted athlete who once dreamed of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Instead, she graduated from high school, took a temp job, and had two children. “I always thought that BU was far beyond my reach,” she says. “But when I read that flier, I felt just like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka. It was my golden ticket.”

In January, Lungelow transferred to BU and enrolled in MET’s psychology degree program. Balancing school, motherhood, and a full-time job is challenging, but she is determined to graduate at the top of her class. “I’ve been through some really hard times,” she says. “But I’m in a good place now, and I feel I can take on more. I tend to put a lot on my plate, and people always say, ‘You’ll never eat all of that.’ But I do, and then I go back for dessert.”

For Lungelow, dessert will be a master’s degree — and possibly a doctorate as well. “I’m going to be the first Dr. Lungelow in my family,” she says.

Once she graduates, Lungelow intends to work in the neighborhoods of her youth. “There are a lot of problems in Dorchester and Roxbury,” she says. “And I want to fix the problems in my own community before I go anywhere else.”

Several weeks ago, Lungelow brought her sons, Ameer, 7, and Qadir, 5, to campus and pointed out the Free at Last sculpture in Marsh Plaza. “I told them that sculpture is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she says. “I said, ‘Mommy goes to the same school as Dr. King.’”

And like King (GRS’55, Hon.’59), Lungelow has big dreams. “I’m not just reaching for the stars,” she says. “I’m reaching for the galaxy beyond.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

This story originally ran March 10, 2009. 

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