Three generations of Natalie Duran’s family cried, as did Jane Sanchez Swain, assistant director for Degree Completion Programs at Montclair State University. They were happy tears – in recognition of the spirit and sacrifices made by a working mom who returned to college after a 12-year absence to inspire her teenage daughter, embarking on her own college application process.
Among the first cohort of nine students to successfully complete the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program from University College, Duran graduated with honors. She, along with fellow graduates Chris Taite, Crisaliz Soto and Martin Soto (no relation), attended a brunch held recently in their honor at the Center for Environmental and Life Sciences atrium, where they received official Montclair alumni pins, school paraphernalia and frames for the diplomas soon to arrive in the mail.
“Today we celebrate a special group of individuals that remind us that it is never too late to pursue your dreams and that neither age nor time should get in the way of going for what you want,” Swain told the audience. “We acknowledge the accomplishments of the first graduates of the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Montclair State University, a program designed specifically for adults returning to college to complete their degree or as we like to say to ‘finish what they started.’ What you have accomplished on this journey in record time is outstanding.”
Duran, who lives in North Bergen, completed her BA in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Education Studies while juggling her full time jobs as an office manager for a real estate company, a wife and mother of two.
“I’m really proud,” Duran’s teenage daughter Gianni Medina says in explaining her tears. The North Bergen High School sophomore recalls nights her mother worked hard on her coursework. “We’re all proud of her because we knew that she’s been talking about going back to school for so long.”
Medina’s grandmother, Jenny Duran, beamed for her daughter: “I’m feeling very, very happy and proud of her.”
Duran says: “Returning to school as an adult and a mother was scary but this was the perfect opportunity to return with the flexibility I needed to accomplish my goal.” Classes are offered online and students do not have to pay any University fees.
Duran was happy to have them share in her special moment. “They’ve been like my biggest support system. When I was in doubt, they were like, ‘Just go for it.’ So, it feels good that they’re here with me today. I’m feeling excited and happy. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
Now armed with confidence and a bachelor’s degree, Duran is considering going to graduate school to study higher education or counseling. “With all of this work we did for our bachelors, if I just have to do another two years, I’m okay with it,” she says.
Chris Taite, who had left Montclair as an undergraduate six years earlier, returned to finish what he started as a promise to his father. While his father had a prior commitment and couldn’t attend the brunch, Taite’s two sisters, Nicole Taite-Combs and Anayka Pomare, and 81-year-old grandfather, Clifton Taite, were cheering him on. His father called three times and texted reminders to his daughters to take lots of photos. During an especially meaningful call, he told his son that he now realized that Taite had to complete his degree at his own pace.
“He finally understood that, so that was a great conversation,” Taite says. “I was glad that I was able to show him. I kept my word. It was a nice way to end this chapter because there’s definitely more to come.”
Taite-Combs, Taite’s eldest sister, a special education teacher who is preparing for her dissertation defense, and planning to graduate with a doctorate in organizational leadership with an emphasis on special education from Grand Canyon University, has been cheering him on every step of the way. She admired his work ethic, noting that after getting off work as a supervisor with ConEd, he would tackle his homework, whether it be reading about Greek mythology or writing a paper. “I’m super proud of him. He was so motivated and so excited,” she says. “Chris is very humble. He’s not big on attention. So, I want him to know he deserves to be celebrated.”
Family patriarch, Clifton Taite, says in Spanish he’s “bien orgulloso” or “very proud” of his grandson.
Taite, who earned a BA in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Humanities and a minor in Classics, says: “This was for me. It was about doing something for myself. To give them an opportunity to be proud of me and to come support me, it doesn’t get better than that.”
Taite, who earned a work promotion during his studies and inspired a fellow ConEd coworker to return to school, plans on taking project management classes for his job and then is considering graduate school at Montclair.
As a mother of four, including two special needs children and describing herself as having “learning disabilities” due to a brain injury, Crisaliz Soto found juggling a full-time job and schooling challenging but graduated with honors nonetheless.
“Having children, learning disabilities and tons of responsibilities aren’t reason enough to quit,” says Soto, who enrolled at Montclair after a seven-year absence from college. “I’ve made my family proud.”
When Soto went up to receive her alumni pin, her 8-year-old daughter Karina said aloud, “I love you, mommy!”
A beaming Soto, who is in the Army National Guard and who works with at-risk youth through the New Jersey Youth ChalleNGe Academy, a National Guard program, says her goal was “showing my girls that everything is possible if you really work hard.”
Soto says the most challenging part of her Montclair journey was “staying on task and just balancing everything.”
A faculty that understands the juggling act often required of adult students made all of the difference for her, Soto says. “They all were so flexible and so willing to work with me that that made my academic journey so much easier. All my professors really helped me out, even the tough ones were willing to work with me as long as I worked hard.”
Now that she’s done, “I’m happy. I’m excited. I feel accomplished,” she says. But she’s not done yet. She says she’s interested in pursuing a master’s degree in social work.
Another Soto Story
A retired senior manager, Martin Soto just planned to take classes offered to senior citizens at Montclair for no credit. Then Sanchez Swain called and told him about the BLS program, and he decided to go for it. The single father, who lives in Montclair, says jokingly that he tried to guilt his son, who lives in Maryland, for not attending the brunch.
Soto, who retired from VF Corporation, says his job required many relocations, resulting in him acquiring many credits at various schools. The last time he took college courses was 12 years before enrolling at Montclair last year. In addition to believing that “education is a lifelong process,” Soto says he returned to demonstrate to his 11- and 15-year-old grandchildren that “it is never too late to pursue your goals.”
The toughest part of completing his degree work was twofold: “The discipline and building my confidence. My inner voice was discouraging me and telling me I couldn’t do certain things but I did them.”
Soto says he’s glad he stuck to it. “I’m proudest of overcoming all my fears and my doubts, and I’m proud that I can show my grandkids it’s never too late.”
It’s also never too late to want to make a mother proud. “I wish my mom was alive,” Soto adds poignantly.
Soto, who is soon launching an English as a Second Language program in Montclair to give back to the community, graduated with honors and plans to pursue a master’s degree in Urban Education.
As for what’s just on the horizon for the newly minted graduates? In the short term, they all plan to participate in Montclair’s Commencement in May and take their turn walking across the stage.
Martin Soto said he was a little embarrassed at first but then realized, “What is there to be embarrassed about? I’m going to come. I earned it. It’s mine.” This time, his son will be in the crowd. As will Chris Taite’s father.
Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos by Narendra Singh.