A number of people doubted Chrislene Francois ’21 and, for a number of years, she was one of them.
This year, however, the freshly minted university graduate in Liberal Studies and Child Homelessness, is making plans to attend graduate school and is the recipient of the 2021 Luke Baldwin Award.
After graduating from Urban College of Boston, Francois briefly attended a Christian college outside of Boston, but when an advisor told her she couldn’t “get it together,” her plan to study theology evaporated.
Francois thought her advisor was probably right. Growing up, her hardworking parents had set aside for her a significant sum to help her pay for college, but as she approached the end of high school, she squandered most of the savings on limousine rides with friends, in dance clubs and other frivolities.
“Transitioning from junior and senior year, I blew that money. Gone,” she says, adding that she felt a deep sense of shame, not only because of the money, but because her behavior was antithetical to the way she was raised, at odds with the industrious example set by her parents and other Haitian Americans.
However, that sense of shame, and her doubters, motivated her to get back on track.
“I like it when people tell me I can’t do something,” Francois says. Her resolve didn’t eliminate the setbacks in her path. She enrolled in a state university but dropped out because she couldn’t afford tuition as a full-timer. Then she tried culinary school but, again, money was a problem. In 1998, she began, in earnest, her journey to a bachelor’s degree with one important step: she took a class in human development at Urban College of Boston — a private community college on Boylston Street — so she could find work she was passionate about in a daycare center or school.
“I love working with children and I love helping people in general,” Francois says. Within a couple of years, she began taking more classes off and on. During a post-graduate visit to Urban College, she learned about the community college’s partnership with Lesley University, and also learned she would be eligible for grants that would make a bachelor’s degree financially feasible.
But she was still a little skittish, based on her previous experiences. At a college fair, she spoke with Farrah Bruny Brown, a bachelor’s degree-completion advisor and assistant director of our community college partnerships program.
“There was something about Farrah,” Francois says. “She was open, she was loving.” Yet Francois was all business, grilling Brown about the level of support the Urban College graduates would receive.
“If we come to Lesley, do you promise to take really good care of us? That we do not get lost in the shuffle?” Francois recalls asking. When she received assurances, and understood that the Urban College cohort could take Lesley classes in Liberal Studies and Early Childhood Education (and a certificate in Child Homelessness), she persuaded a number of her fellow associate’s degree holders to also enroll at Lesley.
That sort of leadership among her peers, as well as her determination to continue her education, earned her this year’s Luke Baldwin Award. Lesley established the honor in memory of Dr. Luke Baldwin who, during his 15 years at Lesley, served as an associate professor, associated dean for academic affairs and provost. Our Adult Learning Division presents the award each year to an adult student who has made the investment to return to college, embodying Baldwin’s ideal of lifelong learning.
Jennine Tambio, director of community college partnerships and advising, says Francois organized study groups and encouraged other students to persist when their studies seemed overwhelming.
“While balancing a demanding full-time course load, Chrislene also makes a difference in the lives of others through her work in Boston Public Schools and other community organizations,” Tambio says.
Francois is a teaching assistant who works with students who have severe disabilities at the William E. Carter School in Boston. Now, with her bachelor’s degree in hand, she plans to become the school’s first minority teacher in many years.
Francois says school Principal Mark O’Connor told her, “Students need to see teachers who look like them.”
“He’s just like a proud parent,” she says of O’Connor.
Francois adds that “Lesley shocked me twice”; first, with her graduation with honors, second with the Luke Baldwin Award. And she’s motivated to obtain a master’s degree — but this time, she’s determined to graduate summa cum laude.
“You know when you are who you are, and you never expect to be acknowledged for that?” Francois says. “That was me.”