Life Lessons: Cambridge College’s Impact Beyond the Classroom

Cambridge CollegePhotos by Shef Reynolds

[This Story Originally Appeared in the November/December 2013 Issue of Scout Cambridge.]

She wasn’t even a student yet, but when Stacey Borden-Holliday walked into the admissions office at Cambridge College in Central Square, she already had a stack of papers in her hand. They weren’t tests or essays, but criminal reports, government documents and work resumes that told the story of a tough life: one spent in and out of jail, battling demons of drug abuse brought on by great personal trauma. Borden-Holliday had promised her father on his deathbed that she would earn her college degree from his alma mater. And she had made a promise to herself to turn her life around. But her previous academics had not been strong, and she feared her background was the type that could keep her from the education she wanted and the brighter future she still dreamed of.

So she approached the situation the only way she could. She laid it all on the table. Literally.

“I spread everything out on the desk,” recalls Borden-Holliday. “My CORI report, my father’s master’s, my resume. I said, ‘This is who I was. This is who my dad was. And this is who I am right now. What do I need to do to come to school here?’”

And then she made one more promise. “I said, ‘I will be the best that you can teach me to be.’”

She was in.

Borden-Holliday’s determination might be exceptional, but her story is not unique. More than 30,000 students have come through Cambridge College classrooms since the school, a non-profit,  was founded in 1971. At the time it was among the few American colleges with programs designed especially for working adults – those who needed a degree to advance personally and professionally but faced barriers. The school has since expanded to seven satellite centers, from Memphis, Tennessee to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It remains committed to helping students of great diversity (67 percent of current students are minorities), including those from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds (69 percent receive financial aid), earn an education that circumstance, regrettable choices and simple lack of opportunity may have otherwise denied them.

When Stacey Borden-Holliday was growing up, it was hard to make school a priority. She managed to complete high school at the insistence of her father, a life-long educator, but those days passed by in a blur. Though she kept it a secret at the time, Borden-Holliday was being sexually abused and plied with cocaine, like lollipops, by the time she was nine years old. Drugs “became a crutch,” says Borden-Holliday, who started acting out, skipping school and staying on the streets to sell drugs: anything to be out of the house. By 17 she had been choked and nearly killed during a robbery. She was shot. She was stabbed. Trouble on the streets was easy to find, and going in and out of jail did little to deter her. In fact, it emboldened her. “Once I got a taste of jail and came back on the streets, I was recognized,” she says. For a victim of abuse, validation – even in its most dangerous forms – can be intoxicating. “My two older brothers and little sister, they had a name on the streets. Now I had my own identity. I had a name for myself. I was accepted. I was received in the neighborhood.”

The years that followed were difficult, with Borden-Holliday “lost” in her addiction throughout most of the ‘90s: going in and out of jail and recovery programs. Eventually she realized time was running out to pull her life together. “The rock bottom I hit was prison,” says Borden-Holliday, who served three years for crimes related to fraud and identity theft. During her time in prison, she would speak to her parents on the phone; over time she noticed small changes in their voices, small lapses in memory. They were getting older. And she wasn’t there with him. “I remember calling home once, and my mother telling me, ‘I’m waiting for you,’” she recalls. It was another way of saying time is growing short. “I just looked around the place. Here were these people walking around in blue uniforms, holding keys. I was trapped in this little room. I thought: this can’t be real. This can’t be my real life.”

Something clicked. Something different. Borden-Holliday signed up for the Correctional Recovery Academy and began to break apart, brick by brick, the issues that had imprisoned her in a self-defeating cycle. She confronted the realities of the crimes she had committed – and the abuse that had been committed against her. She tackled her substance abuse. And she developed confidence and validation in a new, healthy way: after graduating from the CRA she began mentoring other women in the program. Sharing her story was no longer painful, but empowering. “They felt what I was saying, and they understood that I had something to offer,” says Borden-Holliday. “They’d say, ‘Wow, Stacey. You’re kind of powerful!’ I was helping people save their own lives.”

But she still had to save her own. After her release, Stacey-Borden cared for her then-ailing parents in their final years. She developed a more intimate bond with her mother – one that, she says, was missing when she was growing up. They shared their secrets. “It was the most amazing experience,” she says. “I got everything I didn’t get as a child, as an adult. And I was able to give her the love that she hadn’t had as a child.”

And for the first time, her parents truly acknowledged the abuse that had set in motion her darkest, most challenging years. “It was so comforting to have them acknowledge that pain,” says Borden-Holliday, who now glows with praise about her parents. Her mother was stern, but kept the best home she could, she says; and her father was a righteous man. He had taken his own experiences with alcoholism and channeled them into years as a counselor for substance abusers. But Borden-Holliday says the most important person he was able to impact, though, was his daughter.

“He never judged me, he never gave up on me and he loved me until I learned to love myself.’’

So she follows in his footsteps. Next year, as one of Cambridge College’s graduates she’ll receive her degree in Human Services, where she also works in the Student Affairs department: one of the work-study opportunities provided by the college as ways to help students make their way through the expensive education process.(Outside employment can be tough for populations that are affected by marks on their CORI report.)

When Borden-Holliday imagines herself in the years ahead, things begin to come into focus. She wants to pursue a master’s degree, and dedicate herself to helping other women impacted by abuse, addiction and prison time by going into family mental health counseling. Along the way, she invites opportunities to share her own inspiring story. She has already offered a speech at Cambridge College’s Scholarship Celebration, and has been invited as a guest speaker at other area schools. She lives to tell a story she once kept secret, a drastic change she attributes to her education.

“My learning experience has been gratifying in ways I never dreamed possible,” says Borden-Holliday. “No one at the college passed judgment on me. The nurturing, the discipline – it has been amazing.”

That a nurturing educational environment can do wonders for a life is something another Cambridge College student, E. Denise Williams, knows as well. The North Cambridge native spent her teenage years in a residential facility for troubled young women, dealing with the demons of sexual abuse and self-destructive tendencies. It was there that she honed her talent for language, painting with words a universe where she felt safe and free. “It was an escape. I would sit there and write myself to a whole other world, a fantasy place. Everything I was feeling, all the hurt I was going through would come out of me and into my journal.”

But after being held back in the seventh grade, a confidence-crusher for an already-vulnerable girl, Williams needed nurturing from an educator to help her reach the next level. So she confided her story in a concerned principal, who made sure she was supported in the classroom. Then a teacher noticed her writing talent and began taking her to spoken word performances. The boost from the applause was life changing. And as her confidence grew, so too did her determination to build the better life she knew she deserved.

“I would look at the girls surrounding me [in the residential facility] and at their mental state,” recalls Williams. “They had been there a lot longer than me, and were going nowhere. I saw them and thought: this can’t be me. I can’t get stuck in this life.”

As an adult, she did find that her lack of a degree stuck her with limited job opportunities. Again, she needed an environment that offered a nurturing education to help her reach the next stage: and she found it at Cambridge College. “Cambridge College placed a confidence in me that wasn’t always there,” says Williams, who loves that her writing is no longer appreciated just by concerned mentors, but by critical professors. Armed with an education, Williams has watched her life take turns toward successes she once thought impossible.

“Growing up in the projects, you just wake up and think, ‘Oh God. There has to be more to life than this,” says Williams, who recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Africa with her church. “When the airplane wheels touched down, tears came to my eyes,” she says. “I’d wanted to go there since I was a little girl, but it was just a dream. I never thought I’d have the money or opportunity.”

“Sometimes I just can’t believe how far my life has come,” says Williams, who is closing in on her degree in Human Services. “I can picture graduation now. I can taste it.”

And when she thinks about life beyond graduation, she imagines herself working to better the lives of other women. She has returned as an adult to the same residential facility where she grew up, using her story to inspire a younger generation of girls. She hopes to one day open her own group home, and make a difference in the lives of struggling kids: showing them that with nurturing an education, their lives too can turn around.

After all, you’re never too young, or old, to be a learner. Just ask Tiffany Kingcannon, a Cambridge College student and mom of five. She is always working to impart the value of education to her kids – even as she still strives hard toward her own goal of a degree.

“I was a stay-at-home mom with part-time work, but I wanted more,” says Kingcannon, thinking back on her reasons for attending Cambridge College. “I always stress to my kids that education is key. And I really wanted to lead by example.”

The drive for education has always been with her, but it took time to pursue it. Kingcannon didn’t originally complete high school, for reasons not unfamiliar to many people for whom life simply takes a few different turns. At 14, the Denver native moved with her family to Atlanta, where her grandfather, a pastor, opened a church there. “It was a hard transition for me, and I really shrunk away from education,” Kingcannon admits. Without getting her diploma she entered the working world and had a child at an early age. Then she met her husband and moved to his hometown of Boston to raise their growing family.

“I’ve had a lot of good opportunities. But without a degree, you just can’t follow them to their fullest extent,” she says. So she earned her GED through a program offered by United South End Settlements and connected with Cambridge College through a partnership it has with Mother Caroline Academy, a Dorchester school her daughter attends. “I wanted to further my education, but I just didn’t know where to start,” says Kingcannon, echoing the sentiments of many who begin undergrad as adults.

Indeed, many battle with the intimidation related to starting school later in life: will there be stares? Is there a stigma? Kingcannon understands. She was accepted to Georgia State University, and jumped at the chance to attend school in her former home state – she even lived on campus, to get the full straight-out-of-high school experience. But she only stayed one semester.

“I felt so out of place,” says Kingcannon.

She says that the focus on adult learning at Cambridge College offers more than academics: it offers a nurturing environment that makes the learning possible. “The staff, the students – we all embrace and support each other,” she says. “It makes you realize that it’s never too late.”

And it’s never too soon to start planning for the future either. Kingcannon, a work-study student, will receive her degree in Human Services with a concentration in family studies. She’s planning to pursue her master’s degree, possibly in sociology, and plans to use her education to enact positive, community-based outreach. One of her proudest moments at Cambridge College was an internship that brought her back to the same program where she received her GED – not as a student, but as a mentor. “It was amazing to be working with these individuals, helping them obtain what I had,” she says, blinking back tears.  Whether through counseling services or social work, she wants to empower families and help other parents become their best so that their children will be too. “I feel like everything starts at home,” she says.

So she’s starting with her own.

“Are you excited to go back to school?” asks Kingcannon, lifting the headphones from her young son’s ears as he sits in the student center at Cambridge College.

“Yes”!” he pipes up brightly, matter-of-factly.

“What are you going to do on your first day?” she asks, smiling.

“I’m going to say hi!” the tot declares, reaffixing his headphones and immersing himself in an educational iPad app. His mom laughs and smiles. “It had always been my goal to go to college some day, but I had no idea how to get there. I can’t believe that, now, here I am.”

And she’s right about one thing: the seeds for success are indeed sewn at home.

“This is where I belong,” she says of the classroom, and giving her son a loving pat on the back. “This is a place where I feel at home.”