On the way to any type of college degree, there’s always a mountain to climb, but for many students in Boston, like Dorchester’s Jessika Supreme, their journey can be more difficult than others with steep cliffs and dangerous overhangs that life puts in the way to graduation day.
Over the coming weeks, Supreme, a resident of Dorchester for the last five years since immigrating from Haiti, will join thousands of other Boston area college students in getting their degrees. In her case, she received an associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Roxbury Community College (RCC) last Friday (May 13) at its 46th commencement ceremony in the Reggie Lewis Center.
While a lot of paper was handed out to graduates celebrating completion of their studies, the diploma that the just-turned 28-year-old Supreme earned perhaps carries little more weight than many others.
During her three and a half years of English classes and studies en route to her degree, Supreme not only worked full-time, but she also took care of her mother, who died from cancer two years ago, while she was raising her teen-age sister.
“I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and I was able to do it at the same time as school,” she said. “When it got very difficult is when my mom got diagnosed with cancer. When that happened, I also had to take care of my mom, too…I didn’t want to drop out. Many people advised me to put a pause on my studies because so much was going on in my life – take a semester off. That was not an option. My mother would have killed me.”
During those times, Supreme described a lifestyle many would not be able to keep that foremost included being at the hospital with her mother as much as possible. She went to work, then to the hospital, and then left the hospital for her classes at RCC. After school, she returned to the hospital and kept her mother company while doing her homework. In between, she would check in on her sister. The next day, she would repeat her routine .
It was daunting, but support from family, friends, and her RCC professors made things possible.
“They understood. If I couldn’t get my homework done on a certain day, they would allow me to turn it in later that week,” she said. “They knew what I was up against. I needed that at that moment; I really needed it.”
It has been at journey that she feels was her destiny. After graduating from high school in Haiti, she went to work as an assistant teacher at a pre-school and really enjoyed it. Finally, she decided to enroll in college, and a few months later, she learned that her stepfather had gotten the approvals for her, her mother, and her sister to emigrate to Boston. She said she didn’t want to leave her friends and her life behind, and often prayed that something would go wrong, and she would stay in Haiti. Five years ago, however, she stepped off a plane in Boston and started a journey that will reach a life-changing milestone this week.
“After being here now, I see God had me come for a reason,” she said. “With us coming here, I was able to take care of my mom and now take care of my sister. I am grateful to have been able to come here.”
It was during her mother’s illness that Supreme became motivated to study English and excel at RCC in Second Language (ESL) classes.
“When I first got here not knowing one word of English, whenever people talked to me all they got from me was either ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” she recalled with a laugh. “It didn’t matter if you wanted to kill me; I’d say ‘yes.’ It got to a point where I wanted to change that. I got tired of that and when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I realized we needed someone in the family that could go and understand and advocate for her. A lot was going on and none of us understood entirely what it was.”
Not expecting to go further than ESL graduation, Supreme said she was intrigued when RCC staff began talking about next steps at the school. She had no idea there was an ongoing pathway, and while others suggested nursing as an option, she knew she wanted to pursue her first love, Early Childhood Education.
“I just love working with children and knowing I am shaping young children’s lives,” she said. “I could be going through so much like with my mom, but just one word from the children helps me forget what I’m going through.”
RCC Interim President Jackie Jenkins Scott said students like Supreme are an inspiration to the RCC community, especially at graduation time when all the trials pay off.
“We empower our community through education that matters,” Jenkins-Scott said. “RCC students are our inspiration. They have the intelligence, strength, and perseverance necessary to succeed and to make a difference in the world.”
That perseverance for Supreme will continue, she said, as she pursues a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education at UMass Boston. She hopes one day to become a lead teacher at a Boston Public Schools pre-school site.