Turning education into a family affair

College: Three generations of women from a West Baltimore family are pursuing a degree at Sojourner-Douglass College

April 23, 2001|By Kimberly A. C. Wilson | By Kimberly A. C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Sandra, Victoria and Amanda are the most vocal students in Mr. Andrew's college math class.

They sit near each other along the far wall and diagram pages of detailed notes. When one shouts out a correct answer, the others nod and smile; the wrong answer prompts two similar grimaces. Clustered around the same textbook, they banter like sisters over a geometry question.

But ultimately Sandra has the final say: After all, Victoria is her daughter and Amanda is her granddaughter.

Representing three generations of a West Baltimore family, Sandra Davidson, 53, Victoria Adams-Kennedy, 37, and Amanda Aleong, 18, spend every Wednesday night in the same Sojourner-Douglass College math class.

There is no clearinghouse for statistics about multigenerational family members attending college together, but Davidson, Adams-Kennedy and Aleong are a rarity at the private East Baltimore college.

"We all got to school, and the registration people and the teachers pointed it out and said, `Three generations, wow, that's great!'" said Adams-Kennedy.

Aleong and Davidson enrolled as freshmen last month, on the heels of Adams-Kennedy, a sophomore business major. All three ended up in Lewis Andrew's geometry and algebra class, where a dozen students took note of the three attentive women with the same high cheekbones and long, plump hands.

"I was telling them how much hope they give me," said a classmate. "They empower each of us to persevere."

Perseverance and a shared history are the reasons Davidson, Aleong and Adams-Kennedy are in college in the first place.

The story begins with Davidson, who dropped out of George Washington Carver High School (now Carver Vocational Tech) at age 17 after giving birth to Victoria.

Davidson is one of 11 children born to Myrtilla and Naaman Brown. Her mother was a homemaker who raised flowers and tended a vegetable garden behind the family's Sandtown-Winchester area home. An avid reader, she handed down a thirst for knowledge; Naaman, who labored at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point for nearly 50 years, preached hard work.

Of the two lessons -- get an education and a good job -- the latter made the biggest impression on the Brown children: Most of Davidson's siblings landed civil service jobs, but none finished college.

Davidson worked her way from entry-level claims taker at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to senior secretary, while raising Victoria and her second child, Derrick.

But higher education was elusive.

She enrolled at Fairmount-Harford High School on Harford Road five years ago after a radical mastectomy and reconstructive surgery for breast cancer.

Davidson returned to classes alongside teen-agers at Fairmount-Harford rather than taking the General Educational Development exam because she wanted to experience what she had missed by dropping out -- and because Aleong was a freshman at the school. "I didn't want a certificate," Davidson explained. "I wanted a diploma and to graduate."

After finishing, Davidson spent three years tending to her health. Then, in March, her disease in remission, she resumed her schooling, signing up for classes at Sojourner-Douglass around a full work schedule.

She is eligible to retire after 30 years in 2005, the year she hopes to graduate with a degree in business management and use her new business acumen to open an Internet cafe.

Her resolve was infectious. When mediocre SAT scores dashed Aleong's dream of studying journalism at Morgan State University, she briefly enrolled in community college but dropped out when the atmosphere reminded her of "the 13th year of high school."

Then someone made the recommendation: "Why not go to Sojourner with your mother?"

"My mother is a very persistent person: She's not going to let me give up so easily. And my grandmother is determined, too. She doesn't give up," Aleong said. "I think it may inspire me to stay because I am not alone."

Last spring, when Aleong was winding down her secondary education, Adams-Kennedy was kick-starting college, 20 years after graduating from Western High School with a head full of dreams about making it as a singer and earning a bachelor's degree. She took a year off after high school, had Amanda, and enrolled at what is now Towson University in 1983.

After a semester, she took another break to sing with a reggae band in Ocean City.

"That one semester off turned into two, and then a year and then years off," Adams-Kennedy said ruefully.

She enrolled at Strayer Business College during a lull in her music pursuits but again dropped out. A year ago, she enrolled at Sojourner-Douglass with a renewed determination to see it through.

"In the back of my mind, that was always a goal of mine, not for the piece of paper or for a promotion on the job but because I know that I could do it," said Adams-Kennedy, a tax collector who works down the hall from her mother at Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Sharing a class with mother and daughter is fresh incentive.

"I don't want my mother to scold me like I'm her child," she added with a laugh. "I had to miss a class because I was sick, and she gave me the blues over that."

On a recent Wednesday, the mother, daughter and granddaughter took their usual seats along the wall in Andrew's math class.

For 2 1/2 hours, they were consumed with basic geometry. After class, Davidson and Aleong headed to the math lab to study while the lessons were fresh. Adams-Kennedy headed home. But she consulted with her mother and daughter later by telephone to make sure she understood the homework assignment.

"We're all very focused for different reasons," Adams-Kennedy said. "For me, I want to stick it out for once. For my mother, she's overcome a lot and is ready for a new challenge, and for Amanda, probably because she's following our example."

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