Nicole McAllister can't keep the tears from rolling down her cheeks.
This shy, industrious woman sits next to her daughter at the Johns Hopkins Club, where Nicole McAllister has worked as a waitress for 17 years. And her boss, general manager Cem Baraz, has come to praise her on this special occasion.
"Nicole is one of those folks you feel good about," he begins. "She brings such a work ethic, and it has been part of our joy to see her daughter come around."
The tears come faster now. McAllister's daughter, Kearra Carter, is dabbing her eyes as well.
"You should cry," Baraz says, sniffling himself. "It should touch you."
McAllister, one of the many unsung people who keep Johns Hopkins rolling forward day after day, is about to enjoy the mighty university from a whole new angle. On Thursday morning at commencement, she'll watch from the VIP seats as Carter becomes the first person in their immediate family to earn a college diploma.
The immensity of it first hit McAllister at this time last year, as she watched from a window at the club as the 2010 graduates walked to their commencement: She wouldn't be working commencement 2011. She'd be one of those proud parents in a new dress, cheering her baby.
The Hopkins Club is old-fashioned, to say the least. A grandfather clock stands sentinel at the door to a dining room filled with marble columns and green leather chairs. The patrons are used to financial security and success in the world of ideas.
McAllister enjoys working there, especially the small talk she makes with members who have kept up with her life since Carter was in elementary school. She just never dreamed that her daughter might end up on the other side of such exchanges. She didn't realize that with her example of unfussy dedication, she was showing her daughter the way to something more.
"That path has been created by Nicole," Baraz says. "It was her persistence."
Carter nods. "I always wanted to make my mother proud," the City College graduate says. "She worked so hard for us."
McAllister was a young mother of two (Carter's sister, Nikita, is 16 months older) when she took the waitressing job at the club after being laid off from Signet Bank. It was a way to make ends meet.
The job required long hours that kept her away from her daughters in the evenings and on holidays. The girls often cooked their own dinners and spent Thanksgiving or Easter at their grandmother's house around the corner from their place in Northwest Baltimore.
That might have been a recipe for chaos in some families, but McAllister never had to worry about Carter. The girl was so fastidious that she even potty-trained herself.
"It was hard, with the kids being small, not spending time with them," McAllister says. "But they knew I had to do what I had to do."
Carter always came home and did her work, whether her mother was there to nudge her or not. As she got older, friends teased that she was the mom of their group, the one who pulled everybody in a more responsible direction.
"All my teachers loved me," Carter says. "That's always been me. I'm a quiet, good girl."
Carter was never less than a terrific student at City College, but she didn't give much specific thought to college until her senior year. When she finally ducked into the college counseling office, an adviser looked at her sparkling transcript and asked, "Where have you been?"
She had never dreamed of attending Hopkins. "I didn't know I had the grades," she says.
But over the years, McAllister had become friendly with several top administrators whom she had served at the club. When they got a gander at her daughter's record, they realized she was not only a strong candidate for admission but also for the Baltimore Scholars program, which offers full scholarships to promising students from the city.
Jerry Schnydman, a fellow City College graduate and longtime Hopkins official, had come to know and admire McAllister at the club.
"I was really impressed with her as a parent," he recalls. "So when she mentioned that her daughter was thinking about Hopkins, I took an interest."
He made sure he was the one who called McAllister with the good news, catching her during her waitressing shift, the day before admissions letters were to hit mailboxes.
"I just didn't believe it actually happened," McAllister says, remembering how she cried that day. "I only wanted the best for my children. I know how I struggled."
She bought a Hopkins sweat shirt, which she presented to Carter when she got home.
"Mom, what's this for?" the still-unassuming applicant asked.
"Finally, it hit her," McAllister says. "'Oh, I got in.'"
Carter still wasn't sure she belonged as her freshman year began. Though she had visited her mother many times on the Homewood campus, she kept getting lost on her way to class. She knew many of her peers had attended private schools and wondered whether her public school education had adequately prepared her.