The cheering sections for Martece Yates on the gymnasium bleachers were cramped on graduation day. There was her husband, dressed in a crisp, gray summer suit. Her two children. Her formerly crack-addicted mother. Her longtime co-workers and friends. Her high school teachers, who were tasked with keeping a young Yates on track for college.
They all sat there squished for hours, waiting for that single second when the provost of Trinity Washington University would announce her name, the moment when they could stand up and raucously cheer for the delayed dream that Yates had finally clinched.
“Stop crying, it hasn’t even started yet,” Ka’Ron Yates, 21, jabbed at his mother, who donned her bedazzled mortarboard as she sat amid the rows of graduates. “Oh, that is so Martece,” replied Paulette Bentford, after she spotted her daughter’s misty eyes.
Her name was called, and they all stood up and flailed their arms. Yates’s teenage daughter, an aspiring photographer, snapped photos. Her husband, her high school sweetheart, shouted, “Okayyy, Martece!”
Just shy of her 40th birthday, Yates graduated from college Saturday, with a nursing degree from Trinity. She’s had 20 years more than most to build up that cheering section, two decades that painfully demonstrated the professional barriers that can get in the way of an adult who doesn’t have a college degree.
Yates was always supposed to attend college after high school in 1994. She had applied and even collected some acceptance letters. And she had an almost irresistible advantage that few receive.
In 1988, a wealthy benefactor offered to pay college tuition for Yates and 66 other Kramer Middle School students from one of the roughest neighborhoods in the District. The only condition? They needed to complete college within six years of high school graduation.
Prominent Washington businessman Stewart Bainum Sr. sponsored the students through the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, and he hired two teachers to mentor them, making round-the-clock house calls and ensuring the students were fed and showing up to school. They hoped to nurture the future of a cadre of D.C. children who otherwise might not have made it.
But it was the District in the 1990s, and the nation’s seat of power, in the throes of the crack epidemic, was also the nation’s murder capital. For a child like Yates, growing up in a poor neighborhood in Southeast Washington, attending college was more complicated than just earning decent marks in high school and celebrating acceptance letters.
Just six of the Kramer Middle School students ended up graduating from college during the allotted time. But Yates and two others — including a second 2016 Trinity graduate — earned their college degrees this spring.
Yates recently accepted a job offer as a nurse at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, a competitive application process that earned her a shout-out from Trinity’s president at graduation.
“It’s so exhilarating to see how they persevered,” said Phyllis Rumbarger, one of the educators in Yates’s “I Have a Dream” class, who attended the graduation in the District on Saturday.
Yates was considered one of the more successful high school students in the program: an affable teenager at the top of her class and the captain of the majorette dance team at Eastern Senior High School.
But no one knew that she lived at home with a mother struggling with addiction or that Yates feared her mother would overdose if she left home for college. Yates declined her college offers, including a coveted one to attend the University of Miami, and she soon became pregnant with her first child.
“I was suffering from addiction, so Martece wasn’t my focus and I didn’t support her the way I needed to,” said Bentford, who is now a substance-abuse counselor and active in her daughter’s life. “Martece was focused on me not getting worse, but I didn’t see that. Addiction is a self-centered disease.”
So Yates remained home and eventually landed an administrative job at the American Health Care Association, where she has worked for the past 19 years. She married her high school boyfriend, who is now a correctional officer, and they had their second child.
In 2009, when her son was a teenager and her daughter in elementary school, she decided it was finally time to pursue her college education. She applied for scholarships and took out loans to cover the $70,000 she would need to get a degree.
Yates juggled classes and a full-time job while her mother helped out with the children. Yates might be older than most college students, but she wanted as much of a traditional experience as she could muster.
She became president of the Student Nursing Association, and she hosted frequent study sessions at the home she owns in Ward 7’s Hillcrest neighborhood. When graduation time arrived, she purchased a cart full of supplies from a craft store and invited her friends over to decorate mortarboards with their names and bright colors. On graduation day, she wore the bright orange and silver stilettos — with turquoise butterfly wings protruding from the back — that her husband, Rick, bought her for the occasion.
“I was there from the beginning, the ups and downs” he said. “To see it all come to fruition 20 years later, I’m so proud.”
Throughout her years at Trinity, Yates posted about her experience on Facebook, drawing attention from at least one of her Kramer Middle School classmates and perhaps changing her life, too.
Sherletta Barrow — who had been in the “Dreamer” program with Yates — saw one of the posts and decided to look into Trinity. Barrow had attended Columbia University after she graduated from high school in the 1990s, but catapulting from a poor D.C. neighborhood to an Ivy League institution wasn’t easy, and she dropped out soon after she arrived.
Barrow’s three children are now college-bound, and Barrow graduated with high honors Saturday. She plans to pursue a master’s in mental-health counseling.
“I don’t think the magnitude of this has set in yet,” Barrow said. “I started to do this to be an example for my kids. But in the last year or so, I started to do it to fulfill my own dreams.”
Yates wants this to be an example for her children, as well. She hopes that, as they sat in the bleachers watching her graduate, they understood her story.
She also hopes they understand that there are many paths to success and that graduating from college in one’s early 20s is far from the only marker of a person’s accomplishments.
“Even if things don’t happen the way you planned, or the way society thinks things should happen, doesn’t mean you should give up on your dreams,” she said. “It can still happen.”