New York Times Neediest Cases

After Disaster and Breakup, a Mother Strives for an Education - The New York Times

Marlin Hernandez sat at the front of her classes to better understand her teachers because English was not her native language. If she still struggled with words or concepts, she sought tutoring. No matter how exhausted she was, Ms. Hernandez remained dedicated to her studies.

“I used to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning, go to my school until 3:15 p.m., then run so I could start work by 4 o’clock,” Ms. Hernandez recalled. “I did that every day. Every single day.”

Ms. Hernandez, 25, grew up in the Dominican Republic. She immigrated to the United States in the wake of a family tragedy: Her grandparents were passengers on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in Queens shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport in November 2001, killing 260 onboard and five others on the ground. Ms. Hernandez and a sister stayed with their father and stepmother in Boston. When Ms. Hernandez was 15, she and her sister moved to New York City to live with their aunt.

“I said I want to learn,” Ms. Hernandez said. “I want to learn English. I want to graduate from school. I want to do a lot of things.”

The drive to excel was kindled by things she saw in her home country. Ms. Hernandez’s mother never finished high school and spent her life in poverty; an older brother who did not complete his education turned to drugs.

Ms. Hernandez took a job at a grocery store, where she worked 40 hours a week while attending high school. No matter how scarcely she slept or how grueling her schedule, she never wavered from her studies.

Her work in class was not the only way she mastered English. Much of her learning occurred on the job; she would recite the names of the items on her cashier conveyor belt.

After Ms. Hernandez’s sister turned 18, the two of them moved into a room of a house in the Bronx that their aunt helped secure.

“She said, ‘You have a job, you have to go,’” Ms. Hernandez said. “We had to pay rent. We had to buy food. We had to do everything.”

In 2010, Ms. Hernandez and her high school sweetheart had the first of three children. In 2012, she enrolled at Hostos Community College to pursue an associate degree in early childhood education. She paused her studies when they became too difficult to balance with a full-time job and parenting duties.

“If I do it, I want to have A’s or B’s,” she said. “I don’t want to do it just to pass the classes, because I won’t be able to learn.”

Another complication took her away from her studies: In 2013, while she was pregnant with her third child, she learned that her fiancé had been unfaithful. Their relationship ended.

“I was in a depression,” she said. “How am I going to do this now?”

She returned to college, and is taking classes while also working part time as a teacher’s assistant at an after-school program for children with special needs. She earns $760 a month and receives $200 a month in child support. The family also receives $421 a month in food stamps.

The rent on her subsidized Bronx apartment is $231. Other monthly costs include $50 for cable, $60 for her phone and $500 for food and clothing for her children and other household items.

When her youngest child outgrew her crib, Ms. Hernandez could not afford a bed, so Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, used $98 from the fund to buy a toddler bed.

Ms. Hernandez expects to graduate in May and immediately pursue her bachelor’s degree. Her plan is to move out of New York to another state, most likely Pennsylvania.

“It’s a huge difference when you work in a rural school,” she said. “You can interact more with students’ families.”

Her desire to live at a slower pace and be part of a more tight-knit school community outweighs any fears she has of starting anew.

“If I did it when I was 15, came to a place I didn’t know, and am now raising three kids by myself, I can do it again,” she said.

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