It’s All About Second Chances For These UMB Students

J.P. Goodwin

Colis Brown, a senior in the UMass Boston Exercise Science and Physical Education Program (College of Nursing), recently became the first recipient of the Professor Robert W. Guimond Second Chance Scholarship. The endowed scholarship fund, named in honor of Guimond, a biology professor at UMB, was co-founded and spearheaded by UMB alums Danette Jordan and Jeanette LaVasta.

Brown, Jordan and LaVasta all know something about “second chances” – and all were inspired by Dr. Guimond.

Jordan, who received her undergraduate degree in psychology and biology from UMB in 1999 (with honors), is currently a 40-year old medical student at the University of Pittsburgh. For Jordan, the road to medical school was anything but straight and narrow. During a 15 year detour in her studies, she worked (often two jobs at a time) as an accounting clerk for the Dorchester District Court, an administrative secretary and as an executive secretary. After struggling with school early in her life, Jordan decided to buckle down and return to school. As her string of accomplishments at UMB will attest, she made the right decision.

While at UMB, Jordan made the Dean’s List every semester. She was accepted into the highly competitive Ronald E. McNair Research Program, and was a McNair Fellow for two years, conducting independent research in neurobiology. She was president of the Chemistry Club. She received an NIH Fogarty Grant, was selected for a University Student Leadership Award and was inducted into both Who’s Who in American Colleges and the National Dean’s List. When Jordan graduated, she was awarded an NIH grant to travel to South Africa to conduct biomedical research, where she investigated HIV clades of the indigenous population.

Well-honed survival skills might be the most apt way to describe how Jeanette LaVasta went from an impoverished 15-year old to her present circumstance as an M.D., Ph.D. candidate at the UMass Medical School. She entered Cornell University at the young age of 15. As one who had always lived within the Puerto Rican community, she had considerable cultural adjustment to reckon with. During her freshman year, her mother passed away and LaVasta found herself without any parent and no adult relatives in the United States, and totally without economic resources. Lacking both financial and emotional support, she still managed to complete her studies at Cornell in four years.

After working for four years in laboratories at both Columbia and Harvard, she decided she wanted to be a physician. She decided to enroll at UMB to obtain a second degree to prepare for medical school. LaVasta graduated with a bachelor of science in chemistry (with honors) in 1999. During her time at the university she served as president of the Protestant Campus Ministries and earned the Richard T. Hogan Scholarship.

But LaVasta stood out in her classes for more than just her academic success. A single mother, she often had trouble finding child-care and would set herself up with the baby carriage in the back of the room. She could often be seen holding her restless child in one arm, in a rocking motion, while taking notes with the other hand.

So Jordan and LaVasta, along with other of Guimond’s students, decided to create an endowed fund earmarked for students from the sciences and the College of Nursing who “may have had some false starts in their earlier academic incarnations, but who have shown marked and sustained improvements in the later years of their scholastic performances.”

Their choice for the initial scholarship appears to have been an easy one.

Colis Brown was an excellent athlete in high school and was recruited by several schools to play football. However, by his own admission, he became caught up in the hoopla of celebrity status and allowed his grades to plummet to unacceptable levels. He lost the opportunity to play at a prestigious school and spent one unsuccessful year in college. He spent the next 15 years working, the last eight as toll collector on the evening “graveyard shift” for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. During this time he got married and fathered two daughters.

One evening, while working at the toll booth, he had a chance encounter with UMass President William Bulger who happened to be driving by. By the end of their conversation, Bulger had convinced Brown to apply to UMass Boston. To this day, he credits Bulger for providing him with the needed encouragement and impetus to overcome his insecurities about returning to school. And overcome them he did.

Since his arrival at UMB, Brown has been on the Dean’s List each semester (GPA of 3.8), all the while working full-time to support his wife and family, and being involved in a myriad of activities in and out of school. He’s a member of the Massachusetts Association for Health Physical Education and Dance. He was an assistant varsity football coach at Brookline High and Silver Lake Regional High. He’s a Eucharistic Minister at his church and he volunteers as a speaker on the topics of drug and alcohol abuse at various churches and schools. He is an instructor for lifeguards, first aid and CPR certifications for the Red Cross. Brown was inducted into Who’s Who in American Universities, and received the University Student Leadership Award with Distinction last spring.

What is especially astounding is Brown’s indefatigable pace that allows him to accomplish the many things that he does well. Typically, he begins his job as a toll collector at 10:00pm. When traffic abates after 1:00pm, he manages to squeeze in some study time between toll collections. He also squeezes in some time working out with barbells. When he leaves work at 6:00am, he does one of two things: if it is a relatively light day at school, he’ll drive fifty miles to his home to get his children to school and then sleeps for a couple of hours before heading to school. More often, however, he drives directly to UMB from work, and will attempt to sleep for a couple of hours in his car in the parking garage. When he wakes up he goes to the gym, changes and takes off for Castle Island for a 4 to 5 mile “wake up run,” while listening to tapes he’s made of class lectures. And he’s been doing this with metronomic regularity for the last three years.

Of course there would not be any “second chance” stories if there wasn’t someone around to provide support, inspiration and guidance. In the cases of Colin Brown, Danette Jordan and Jeanette LaVasta, that someone at UMB was Professor Robert Guimond.

Guimond, who’s also a lawyer, has been teaching at UMB for thirty years. The greatest single testament to Guimond is that this scholarship was generated by his students. Most, if not all, of these types of endowed scholarships are named in honor of retired or deceased academics. Guimond is still in the trenches.

Guimond, who called UMass Boston the “Ellis Island of Academia,” said “I am often in awe of my students for the things they must do just to survive: the jobs they have, the families they support, the parents they take care of, the broken homes they come from, the economic hardships they sustain, the tragic episodes they have experienced in their former homelands prior to coming to this country to start a new life, the volunteer work they do, and the incredible abilities they have to overcome those staggering impediments and ultimately prevail in school and in life thereafter. They are inspiring to me (and my colleagues) and I am most fortunate to have them as my clients. They have made my stay here a most enjoyable one, and I look forward each year for the next cohort.”