My dream of attending Harvard University and the road I journeyed to
get there began in the summer of 1971, selling newspapers on a corner in
Harvard Square. How did someone like me, a gal with a street-wise, edgy attitude
and a lower middle class status, and mother of four, ever make it to Harvard University and
earn a degree? In fact, based on my inner city upbringing and the life
I’d lived, the likelihood that someone like me would ever make it to
Harvard was slim to none. I still haven’t quite figured out how the heck I
even made it through high school. Honestly, it was on a wing and a
prayer (me winging it and my mother praying).
Our lives are full of routine. We usually just go along, set in our ways taking care of our responsibilities, hoping that the universe will smile down on us occasionally. Occasionally, we are the recipients of this good fortune and this helps to reinforce our belief that good things really do and can happen to good people who work hard and that sometimes it really can be “our” turn. I graduated with my B.A. in Humanities from Stonehill College in North Easton, MA when I was 39 years old. From there, only one college was on my list to apply for my Master’s degree, and that was Harvard University. I received my degree from Harvard 12 years ago, in June 2000, which was also the same year I turned 40 years old. I’d like to share my admission statement, which I submitted to Harvard along with my other required documents in the hope I would be accepted into the Reading Specialist program of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. This statement illustrates why I feel that the universe truly smiled down on me the year I got accepted.
My Harvard Admission Statement
By: Sharen Wendy Robertson
My first visits to Harvard Square were during the summer of 1972. I was 12 years old and worked as a “hawker” selling the Boston Phoenix and the Real Paper for .50 cents a piece on the street corner across from Harvard Yard. Anyone who sold newspapers this way was called a ‘hawker’ but I had the distinction of being the youngest. Every morning at 5:30 a.m., I rode the subway from Quincy Center to Harvard Square. I sold my newspapers to business people, pedestrians, and students hurrying about to start their day. All that summer I watched from across the street as people hurried in and out of Harvard Yard, entering and exiting through the big, black iron gate. I knew, even at that young age, what Harvard represented, and I dreamed of being able to walk across the street, walk up to the big gate, and of walking into Harvard Yard as if I really belonged there. From my street corner, with the sound of the subway train permeating the air and my newspapers bundled close beside me, I imagined I was across the street; instead of right where I was: on the corner making change for the newspapers I sold.
As a teenager I continued to work while I attended the Quincy Public Schools. I am the oldest daughter of seven children and my parents divorced when I was 15. Wherever I worked, whether I was selling newspapers or waitressing, I always tried to help my family out financially. In 1974, I met Carmelo. He was 17 and had recently emigrated with his family from Sicily. We were married in 1978, one month after I turned 18, and our first child was born within a year. We lived in a one-bedroom attic apartment in the home of my in-laws for five years, because my husband, being the oldest child in his family and with parents who spoke very little English, was responsible to stay close by. My own mother continued to need my help raising my younger siblings, so my home was their home. I often thought about college, and I prayed that one day I would be able to go. I never felt, however, that the time was right.
We had a second child two years old later. When she was two years old, I thought maybe the time was right for college. So, at 23 years old, I started night school. Several years went by, we had another child and then another. With four children, my marriage, my mother, and my brothers and sisters to take care of, I found I could only take a class every couple of years. I was frustrated. I wanted to finish my degree but there were so many other responsibilities to consider that I knew it still wasn’t the right time.
In 1985, my husband and his father incorporated a family asphalt paving business. The company began without any trucks or heavy equipment. Each day, since my father-in-law did not have his license, I drove him to the job, with the picks, shovels and wheelbarrow in the trunk of my car, and then drove back to the job to pick him up at the end of the day. I taught myself all the skills that were necessary to run a company, from bookkeeping to payroll, and all the administrative duties, as well. I did this all out of the dining room of our apartment. My business sense took many years to develop, but as the business grew, so did my expertise. I learned how to manage vendors, bookkeeping, accounting, corporate laws, monthly taxes and reports, marketing, scheduling the work, and held the position of corporate Treasurer. I read books and found people who could answer questions. I did this while I ran my home, raised my four children, ran a private day care, and was a second mother to my siblings. My dream to finish my education did not diminish or disappear, however it did get pushed further and further out of my reach. I tried to take a class when I could, but it was slow: ten classes in fourteen years! Yet, I was still hopeful that one day the time would be right.
Throughout my life, I have tried to be sensible, with a strong sense of balance. I attribute this to my deep spirituality and my passion for writing. These two qualities have served me well in my life, and I have always thought of myself as a writer. In fact, I wrote my first two poems when I was only nine years old. I love everything about writing: from initial idea (imagination) to the finished piece of writing. In 1994, when my youngest son went to first grade, I started writing children’s stories. I became a volunteer storyteller in his class and also in my other son’s fourth grade class. I loved writing and this was the perfect environment for my ideas to flourish. Within four months, my storytelling had evolved into brainstorming new stories with the classroom students. I found their ideas to be energizing, genuine, imaginative, and unabashed. I stopped bringing in my stories and started working with them on theirs. We worked through the entire writing process: initial idea, first draft, revision, editing, and publishing. Months passed. I was volunteering in several classes by then. Their stories were so beautiful and creative, and they had worked so hard to get them polished that it prompted me with what I thought was another great idea: I would showcase the students and their stories on local access television. I called the program, The Story Train.
The initial idea, whether in writing or any endeavor, is simply the first step in a process. Luckily, I enjoy formatting, developing, and revising an idea the same way I enjoy the writing process. I am not afraid to be creative. Developing a cable show and creating a literacy program from the ground up was a very exciting challenge. I organized and formatted the show, worked out all the details with our local cable company (which was where the show was taped), the school, the buses, publicity, and I did all this while I still volunteered in their classrooms.
The first show was taped at the Continental Cablevision studio in May 1995 The Story Train (cable program). I had four more shows that year and even branched out into surrounding communities. The program was endorsed by superintendents, school teachers, and administrators. The show was nominated for an award in 1996 and 1997 in the Massachusetts Cable Commission Contest as best educational program on local access television.
My original hope and goal for The Story Train, as idealistic as it may have been, was to offer the program to schools free of charge. I just wanted all children to have access to the way it builds self-esteem. I thought this an attainable goal if I could secure funding. I researched and applied for federal non-profit status and in February, 1996, The Story Train became a 501 © (3) corporation. I found support from local arts councils and businesses and held fund-raisers. Inspiring children to want to write is the mission of the program. In keeping with this mission, I designed a website for publishing students’ stories The Story Train website. I also researched and applied for a federal trademark and on December 23, 1997, The Story Train was granted trademark #2,123,589!
The Story Train was off and running. I had successfully marketed the program and was busy bringing it to schools throughout Massachusetts. The program was accepted into E.R.I.C., the national database for educational resources sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Education. As part of their master’s program, college students from Cortland College in New York chose The Story Train as their class project. The city of Brockton is considering adding the program to its curriculum in January, 1999. They are seeking state funding, which will enable this to take place.
From the original idea in 1994, The Story Train had evolved into a variety of components, from the television show to the website. It was during this busy time in the classroom that I realized that my own education was no longer something I could put off. In May 1997, I enrolled full-time to Stonehill College night school. When I finally decided the time was right I gave everything I had. I have since taken 26 classes in 19 months. I have been able to earn a 3.7 GPA, care for my home and family, and work for The Story Train because I am organized and confident I can do what I need to do.
I am very excited and humbled to finally have the opportunity to attend college, and I gratefully pray each day to be able to continue to do so. It seems like yesterday I was hawking newspapers in Harvard Square, dreaming I could walk through the iron gate “as if I really belonged there.” I have held onto my dream of one day being able to attend Harvard for over a quarter of a century. Imagine my excitement at being so close to making this dream a reality. The time is finally right!
Photo of my son, Carmen, and I. June 1999, Stonehill College graduation. I would be attending Harvard that September!
Even with my B.A., I still could not forget my dream from
1971, as an 11 year old girl selling newspapers on a corner across from
Harvard University. My dream of one day walking through that
wrought-iron gate “as if I really belonged there” had never faded. I’d
worked hard my entire life and at 39 years old I decided to throw doubts
to the wind. I thought, “What the heck. I have nothing to loose. It’s
worth a shot, probably my only shot.” Equipped with my B.A. and letters
of recommendations from my professors at Stonehill College, I applied to
Harvard University’s master’s program for teachers. Then, I waited.
Four months later, April 1999, an envelope arrived in the mail. I
looked at the envelope, my hands shaking. I did not have the courage to
open the envelope. I decided to give the honors to my 14 year old son,
John and 12 year old son, Carmen. They ran in the living room while I
waited nervously in the kitchen. The clock ticked. Not a peep from the
living room. I called out to my boys, “Well, what does it say?” Still,
not a word. (I now realize that they were trying to read the letter.)
Finally, an explosion of excitement from the living room! They ran into
the kitchen and could not stop jumping up and down. “Yes!” They both
I will never forget the day I walked through Harvard’s gate, but
unlike in my dream from 1971, I really did belong there. I started my
teacher program (not night school this time either) in September 1999,
took 13 classes that year, and received my Master’s degree in Education
in June 2000. I’d just turned 40 years old. After the graduation
ceremony I walked over to my “corner,” the one where I’d sold my
newspapers on 29 years before. It was the most surreal moment of my
life. As I stood there across from Harvard’s gate once again, I could
feel the presence of my 11 year old self still sitting there on her
newspapers. In my mind, I smiled at her. I looked across the street with
the same anticipation I’d felt back then, except this time the
anticipation faded quickly because this time (and it finally was the
right time), I was holding my degree in my hand. I could see in my mind
my 11 year old self was smiling, too.
I go back to Harvard Square now and then, just to visit for the day. I
take the subway into Boston and without fail, every time I pass my
“corner” I get goose bumps. Just the thought that I used to sell
newspapers “right there” fills me with a sense of pride and
accomplishment at my life. I will never forget where I came from or the
work it took to get where I am and anytime I need a reminder I simply
take the train into Harvard Square and
stand on my corner.
(Pure joy at receiving my Master’s Degree from Harvard University!)
In closing I’d also like to add that in keeping with my unpredictable connection to Harvard University, in August 2012 I was installed as the new President of the Harvard Club of New Bedford and Fall River Harvard Club of New Bedford/Fall River website
Sharen Wendy Robertson owns the copyright to all posts on this Blog.