Jennifer Freeman invited her son to her college graduation back in December.
But Marcus Roberts, a 27-year-old Coast Guardsman, immediately realized he couldn’t attend because an overseas mission would interfere with the May commencement ceremony.
For months, the single mom who had dropped out of high school to care for her brother and sister, her three children and two nephews, begged him to come, to watch her finally get her associate’s degree in communications from Broward College, her first time walking across a stage. She urged him to ask his supervisor, and even offered to talk to his boss directly, he said.
“It didn’t seem like it was going to happen so she was a little disappointed, but she understood I’m serving. Then in March, the deployment schedule got changed, and I figured rather than me just telling her, I would pop up and surprise her,” he said.
Roberts contacted the college and schemed an intricate plan that involved dozens of staffers and took several weeks to unfurl. On Thursday, while his mom, 54, pictured him in Malta, he showed up in Fort Lauderdale, decked in his military uniform — complete with his spit-and-polished black patent leather shoes, the ones he only wears for special occasions — and holding pink and red roses.
Broward College, one of the largest in the state with more than 60,000 students and about 2,000 faculty and staff, awarded about 3,700 certificates and degrees this spring term. The public institution held the graduation at the Broward County Convention Center, where about 1,200 students and 4,800 family members and friends attended in person.
Jacky Wright, corporate vice president and chief digital officer of Microsoft US, delivered the keynote speech.
The college had asked Freeman to take a photo with Broward College President Gregory Adam Haile, but as she did that on stage before the event began, she saw her son, whom she calls her baby and whose number she saved on her phone under “MY ONE GOOD SON.”
She jumped and ran around in her black stilettos, her blue cap and gown flowing. She screeched and cried, wiping away tears without smudging her makeup. She hugged him.
“This is the best Mother’s Day ever,” she said. “I think this is the best Mother’s Day any mother could get.”
Graduating, a lifelong dream
Freeman, a native of Nassau in the Bahamas, lost her mom early in life. With her father absent, she looked after her sister and brother. She got pregnant at 16 with her first daughter, and pregnant again at 18 with her second daughter.
Because she had so many responsibilities, she dropped out of school after the ninth grade.
“I knew that I was smart, but I didn’t have a choice in the matter. It was either that or let the family fall apart,” she said.
Freeman moved to the U.S. in 2004. She raised her kids and helped her sister raise hers. She attended all of their school and college graduations. She beamed with pride every single time, but felt a gaping hole inside.
“No matter what I achieved in life — I had cars, I had houses, I had children, I educated my children — and I always felt like something was missing. I could tell, all my life, no matter what I achieved, I felt like something was missing. I knew it was my lack of education,” she said.
Freeman noticed she didn’t know “basic stuff” everybody else knew, like how cells reproduce. That struck her most when she couldn’t help her grandchildren with their homework. She decided to get her GED. Then she enrolled at Broward College in the summer of 2020, balancing her studies with her full-time job as a dealer at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
Her last academic period proved to be the hardest, as she worked her night shift from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., then attended class at 8 a.m.
Her Hispanic coworkers helped with her Spanish class. “ ‘Cómo te llamas’ means ‘what is your name,’ Ms. Freeman,” they would explain. Her nephews helped with her writing, teaching her about MLA format and essay structures. Even her fellow classmates — younger, traditional-age college students who had initially intimidated her — chipped in.
One of her nephews, Trovex Bain, who attended Tallahassee Community College and will soon go to Florida State University, described the unconventional relationship as “something beautiful.”
“It was an amazing experience, seeing where she started and where she is now,” said Bain, 21.
‘You did it, Jennifer, you did good’
Freeman’s efforts paid off Thursday. With her hands shaking and heart pumping, Freeman struggled to find words to describe what graduating meant to her.
“I finally did it. This is no longer a dream; I did it,” she said, choking up.
“You did it, Jennifer, you did good,” she said to herself.
At the ceremony, President Haile recognized the parents and guardians who pushed their loved ones.
“You are the role models for those who are in your care. Thank you for teaching us that pursuing an education is one of the best things you can do, not just for yourself, but for your family,” he told the graduates.
The youngest graduate from Broward College was 16; the oldest, 71. To Freeman, age shouldn’t define anyone.
“Whatever your dreams are, chase them like a wildfire and remember you’re never too old to pursue them,” she said.
Now that she’s earned the parchment she yearned for for decades, Freeman said she will focus on fine-tuning her public speaking skills, taking classes for that because she wants to talk to girls and women, teenage moms especially.
“I want to use my life as testimony. They need to know they can still make it. There’s still hope. Even if you’re a young mother, don’t just think, ‘Oh my life is over,’ ” she said. “Your life is only over if you think it’s over.”
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