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Posted at 02:54 PM ET, 04/29/2011

The education of Mary J. Blige

Imagine you are a superstar singer, winner of a heap of major awards and tapped as the leading rhythm and blues artist of the last 25 years.

It’s a decent bet that going back to high school to earn the degree you never got wouldn’t be high on your list of things to do.

But that’s what Mary J. Blige did, returning to homework and tests to earn her GED about 20 years after she dropped out of high school, and now she’s aiming to get a bachelor’s degree.

She also is working, through her Mary J. Blige and Steve Stoute Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, or FFAWN, to help other young women pay for college; she helped raise money to award 25 full scholarships to a range of colleges, and now there are plans to fund 25 more.


Mary J. Blige and scholarship students
“I know how hard it was for me to get educated,” she said. “I can tell you I didn’t feel good when I could not articulate properly. Getting my GED was important and I want other women to feel that.”

A big part of FFAWN’s mission is to support educational programs. That includes the Mary J. Blige Center for Women, which opened in 2009 in partnership with Westchester Jewish Community Services to provide services to women in Yonkers, N.Y., her hometown. They include adult basic education and GED preparation, career exploration/work readiness, parenting education, college readiness, life skills training, mental health services and more.

This is more than just a nice story about someone who decides to give something back. Young people can find inspiration in learning that someone who has already “made it” went back to school. Publicly valuing education, as Blige is doing, can be important to dropouts who may not understand why high school and college degrees can make a big difference in their lives. The message has more resonance from someone who has been there.

“When I was a child I didn’t care about getting an education, and I didn’t finish high school,” said Blige, an award-winning R&B artist as well as a pop singer. “But I got a second chance, and what I came to understand about education is that it is the key to life. I have seen women in the neighborhood where I grew up suffer terribly, from abuse, low self-esteem, no education. The foundation is to help women get a second chance, like I got.”

To raise money for scholarships, Blige is holding a fund-raising concert Sunday in New York with a little help from her friends, women including Anita Baker, Christina Aguilera, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson. (Not a bad way to raise funds, is it?)

After working for a while with students at the Women’s Academy of Excellence in Bronx, N.Y., foundation officials realized that most of them weren’t planning to apply to college, said Madeline Nelson, the foundation’s board chair.

“We started asking why,” Nelson said. “Some of the reasons were heartbreaking. Many of them simply came down to money. ... At the end of the day, Mary said: ‘Dream your biggest dream. We are going to give you scholarships. Where would you go to school if you could go?’ ”

The graduating class had 59 seniors, she said; the 25 with the highest grades won the scholarships and now attend colleges including Syracuse University, Penn State and the University of West Virginia.

“People have to be nurtured, regardless of how old or young,” Blige said. “You have to tell them over and over and over again that they can make it. That’s what we do.”

Next year, young women around the country can compete for FFAWN scholarships.

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By  |  02:54 PM ET, 04/29/2011

 
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