A Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) public health major who worked for decades cleaning houses and as a nanny has some sage advice for adults who may think they’re not qualified or too old to go to college.
“You are never too old to get your high school equivalency degree (GED) and enroll in college,” said Lyn Thomas, 52, who will graduate from BMCC this spring.
Thomas moved to New York from Grenada to join her mother when she was around 18 years old and later started cleaning other people’s homes to make a living. By the time she turned 26, she was pregnant with her daughter.
“Her father left us before we even got to the hospital where she was born,” said Thomas.
A few years later, Thomas got married to another man, but that marriage wasn’t successful because of the husband’s issues with addiction and things only got worse, she says.
“He took everything, every dollar I had saved, he stole it,” said Thomas. “I lost my apartment and for a while, my daughter and I slept in my Toyota Camry.”
Those challenging times, Thomas says, are why she is not a quitter as she prepares to accept her diploma in front of thousands of attendees at BMCC’s commencement ceremony at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on June 9.
Thomas persevered in New York City as a domestic worker. One family that employed her for eight years became close, life-long friends, said Thomas, even setting up a College Savings Program 529 plan for her daughter who has since graduated college and now at age 26, works in the financial sector.
After 30 years of cleaning homes and taking care of other people’s children, Thomas’s daughter sponsored her and she was able to secure her green card. At that moment she also made the decision that being a nanny was not the only career goal she wanted to pursue. At age 48, she made the decision to get her GED.
That presented its own set of challenges. For most New York City nannies, setting aside the necessary time to successfully pursue an education program, much less a college degree, is simply not an option many nanny-hiring-families will tolerate, according to Thomas.
“I’ve seen it a lot over the years—if you get pregnant, you lose your job. If you go to school, you lose your job,” Thomas said.
Nonetheless, in fall of 2018, she enrolled in a GED program at the SUNY Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center (BEOC) with the goal of eventually going to college. But first, she had to overcome her fear of math.
“I was scared of math,” Thomas said. “I told my teacher, if you can teach me math, you can teach a brick math.”
Thomas failed her first attempt at the GED math exam. But then she took advantage of BEOC’s tutoring services and immersed herself in practice exercises and individualized instruction.
“I was in that school every living day,” said Thomas. “On days I have class, I’m in tutoring. On days I don’t have class, I’m in the school getting tutoring.”
After weeks of tutoring, she tried the exam again and earned the second-highest score of all her classmates, she said. And while math was the toughest hurdle in her quest for the GED, her writing skills were strong.
“My English instructor used my exam essay as a model for her GED classes,” said Thomas, who upon completing the GED, applied to several colleges including BMCC.
“When I did get my BMCC acceptance letter, I was nervous and scared,” said Thomas, who enrolled in the college in Fall 2019.
The next hurdle
Thomas says she struggled at first and considered dropping out after the first semester. But then she enrolled in the College Discovery program and met several times with professor Vanessa Rozzelle.
“I can’t tell you how amazing the College Discovery is,” said Thomas. “Professor Rozelle encouraged me the whole way.”
Thomas also developed personal strategies for tackling her studies and embedding herself into the BMCC community, even when the college was learning remotely. At the very beginning of each semester, after she registered for a particular class, she reached out to the professor by email and set up a meeting. Once she developed a personal rapport with her professors, it made all the rigorous academic work more manageable.
“I could go to 99% of my professors with questions or for help,” said Thomas.
Thomas says her daughter helped her as well, even buying her a computer. Her hard work paid began to pay off. She made the Dean’s List consistently.
Thomas said she was usually the oldest among her classmates during her time at BMCC. And she said all the other students made the experience easier because they often studied together or worked together on class projects.
“My experience at BMCC was awesome,” said Thomas.
More recently, Rozelle encouraged Thomas to apply to Hunter College, CUNY, to continue her undergraduate studies.
She got accepted into the college’s public health program but didn’t believe it would not be financially possible for her to complete two more years of challenging full-time college work on her limited income.
While she knew she could apply for financial aid to help with tuition, her rent and other bills presented much bigger obstacles. But then, the grandmother in the family she had worked for years ago, the family who set up her daughter’s College Savings plan, reached out.
“She asked me, if we were to pay your rent while you attend Hunter, would you be able to go?” said Thomas. “I said, absolutely.”
Although Thomas is still contemplating her future career options, she will be fulfilling a years-long promise to her daughter in June.
“A few years ago, I made a promise to my daughter, that one day my college degree would be hanging next to her degree on one of our walls at home,” said Thomas. “I will get to fulfill that promise in just a few weeks.”
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