Marie Jean is graduating from Howard Community College with… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
Howard Community College's Marie Jean came to New York in 1984 as an 8-year-old Haitian immigrant, lost both parents within a year of arrival, and after frequently being denied food by foster parents, she relished attending school because, as she says, "That was the only place you knew you were going to eat."
Her life story reads like a stroke of misfortune. In 1992, Jean was involved in an automobile accident that left her in need of more than three dozen surgeries. She required rehabilitation and needed to relearn how to read and write. The accident left her with recurring headaches and back pain to go with the emotional scars from childhood.
Still, she has a smile that would light up any room, and the will that enabled her to rebound from adversity and make the most of a chance at an education. A single mother of three, Jean, 34, graduated from HCC on Thursday with a 3.93 grade-point average and degrees in criminal justice, sociology and conflict resolution, one of the school's newest degrees.
"Marie is our first student graduate," said Kathy Rockefeller, director of the school's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center. "I've been consistently amazed at Marie."
"I knew that God is always with me, and as long as I have hope and faith, he would actually see me through anything I went through," said Jean, a Phi Theta Kappa honors student and a recent recipient of the HCC Outstanding Academic Achievement Award.
She is a permanent resident of the U.S. under the Haitian Refugee Act of 1984 and is working to earn her U.S. citizenship in 2012. She hopes to enroll at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall.
"My mother, one of the things she taught us growing up was that nothing can stay the same," Jean added. "Whether you get older, or the situation changes or death becomes of the situation, it has to change eventually."
Speaking with a thick New York accent, Jean offered vivid images of a childhood spent overcoming tragedy. She arrived in New York with her father, sister and cousin while Haiti was in the midst of a civil war; her mother came later but died of a brain tumor within a month of arrival. Her father, who was in Haiti's military, returned home to bury his wife, only to be killed himself.
That meant that Jean and her sister had to be placed in foster care. She said that when they refused to speak English, communicating instead only in their mother tongue, Creole, they were placed in separate foster homes.
In all, Jean lived in 17 foster homes. One foster mother, she says, burned her with an iron. Another had nine foster children and often fed some but not others, creating enmity among them. Another, she said, purposely turned off her clock alarm so she would be late for school.
At 12, Jean was admitted to the South Beach Psychiatric Center on Staten Island, N.Y.
"She was admitted to the hospital after setting a small fire in her foster home. Marie was crying out for help at the time," said Blythe Evans, a social work assistant who served as Jean's therapist during her stint in the facility. "Marie had several placements, some good, some unsafe."
Still, she graduated high school at 16. She grew up wanting to be a lawyer after watching the television series "Matlock." At 16, she represented herself in her successful bid to gain legal emancipation, which meant she was legally and financially responsible for herself.
In 1992, after gaining emancipation from the courts, Jean was being driven home by a social services staff member in pouring rain when the car rammed a tractor-trailer from behind.
"She tried to avoid it," said Jean, "but my side of the vehicle ended up underneath the tractor-trailer. I was in a coma, and I had 38 surgeries to reconstruct my face. My jaw was wired. I had feeding tubes go through my neck because my nose was gone."
Jean learned about HCC while having facial reconstruction surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital after her accident. Her initial surgeries were done in New York, but doctors there referred her to Hopkins, and Jean decided to remain in the area. After an extensive recovery, she enrolled at HCC in January 2010.
"After my car accident, they told me I would be lucky if I was ever able to read on a fifth-grade level," said Jean, "and the job that they thought I would most be able to do was a grocery bagger."
Jean worked with neurologists at Hopkins and said that she was also taught by her three daughters; she has two 12-year-old twins and a 16-year-old.
"They were teaching me everything they were learning in school, and I have to admit they help me still. It took me 17 years to get back to a high-school level," said Jean. She added that she also underwent rehabilitation and testing via the state Division of Rehabilitation Services to ensure she could perform at the college level.
"She overcame so much adversity in her life, yet always believed she would make a better life for herself and her children," said Evans. "She has always impressed me with her courage and conviction and never-give-up approach to life."
Says Jean: "At times it was very difficult. Sometimes it is still difficult, when my mind doesn't work the way I want it to, because sometimes I still suffer from memory loss because of the accident. But I've learned to embrace my disability instead of using it as a crutch."