Teaching by example: African American women head back to school

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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

At the University of the District of Columbia last week, Kevonya Dickens, 34, walked across the stage to receive her bachelor's degree in finance, followed by her mother, Michelle Dickens, 52, who received a master's in family counseling.

"The last two semesters were hard," said Michelle Dickens, who attended school while holding down a job in the UDC registrar's office. "I'd leave work at 5 p.m., go to class two nights a week, intern at a women's shelter three nights a week for four hours, until 10 p.m., and on Saturdays for eight hours. I'd take a nap when I got home, get up at 3 a.m., study and go back to work."

It's an increasingly familiar story, yet no less amazing with each telling: older women -- in this case, African American mothers and daughters -- returning to college, inspired by one another and motivated by an unwavering belief that education is the key to self-improvement, professional advancement and even freedom itself.

If only more black men were so convinced.

Among African Americans, the college graduation rate for women is 47 percent, compared with 36 percent for men -- none of which is really worth bragging about given the 63 percent graduation rate among whites.

Nevertheless, black women are making significant strides, earning 70 percent of the master's degrees awarded to African Americans, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. In 2009, black women made up 61.7 percent of the African American enrollment at the nation's 50 highest-ranked law schools.

The American Council on Education reports that there are now more black female undergraduates 25 and older than there are 24 and younger. And with this maturity comes more of the discipline and commitment required to achieve their goals.

Andrea Thomas, 52, earned a law degree last week from UDC's David A. Clarke School of Law, following in the footsteps of her mother, Lenora Thomas, who was 66 when she received her law degree from the school in 1997.

"I'm interested in veterans law," said Andrea, who retired as a commander from the U.S. Coast Guard and earned a bachelor's degree in history from Norfolk State University. "We have young people coming home missing body parts and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome who are unable to get the help they deserve. I'm going to use the law to help them, pro bono. That's from the heart. I'm not trying to figure out a way to make a whole bunch of money."

The theme of using education in service to others was echoed time and again -- often with an eye toward helping the black man get his act together.

Robin Wood, 53, will enter the University of Maryland Law School this fall, joining her daughter, Portia, 25, who'll be starting her third year. For more than 15 years, Robin has worked on urban issues with various nonprofit organizations, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"We must find alternatives to incarceration and make sure our kids -- especially black boys -- get in and out of school and become gainfully employed," she said. "I went off to law school as a 20-year-old but left to get married and had four babies. Now is a good time to go back and see how I can use the law to help accomplish these goals." She called daughter Portia "my mentor."


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