Urban College graduates follow non-traditional path to success





Sonia Solas was homeless with a young daughter when she entered Urban College of Boston in July 2014. They were living in a shelter in Danvers, and she would drive an hour to Boston to attend classes.

Now, she is an infant teacher at United South End Settlements, and on Sunday, she and 134 other students graduated from Urban College in a ceremony at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

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Her daughter — now 6 — and her 2-year-old son were both in the audience to see her earn her associate’s degree in early childhood education.

“Some [days] were easy,” said Solas, 25, a Roxbury resident. “Sometimes, I was relieved to be here, like it took me away from other problems.”

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The graduating class was made up of non-traditional students, many of them from low-income backgrounds and many graduating later in life. The class was culturally diverse, including students who are black, Latino, Chinese, and Moroccan.

Solas earned the Jill Alexander Award for Excellence. She was one of six students to be specially honored.

“Never give up,” Solas said. “Nothing is easy in this world. You’re going to have to go through struggle. . . . With all that, never give up.”

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Cherie Walker, a 37-year-old Dorchester resident, was also honored, with the John and Mary Walsh Scholarship — a full-tuition award that she will use to attend the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Walker earned her GED in 2014 after taking classes at Dorchester’s Haitian Multi-Service Center. A teacher there encouraged her to attend a college fair, where she met Carmen Pineda, dean of students at Urban College.

“I really didn’t think college was for me,” Walker said. “But then I came here, and I met these people.”

Walker called Pineda an inspiring woman, crediting Pineda with helping her finish her degrees. Before earning her associate’s degree on Sunday, Walker had also received certificates in human services administration and case management from Urban College.

“I was happy to come here, because it’s like another home,” Walker said. “It’s a safe haven, you know? It’s like a second family.”

In the audience was Walker’s 17-year-old son, whose father was shot and killed in 2008. After his death, Walker took close care of her son’s grandmother for several years. Their time together brought Walker’s attention to the need to advocate for the elderly, whose voices she believes are often unheard.

The graduates were not the only ones to leave the Tremont Street theater with awards. Maria Sánchez, president of the board of Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services, and her son, State Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, were presented with honorary degrees.

“Education, la educación, is the key to open all doors,” Maria Sánchez said to cheers. “It was not only for me, but for my family — my little family.”

Urban College also honored Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who received the Robert M. Coard Distinguished Leader Medal. Walsh, who was also a late college graduate, earning his degree at the age of 40, sympathized with the graduates’ path, calling it “a class at a time.”

Rowan Walrath can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @rswalrath.

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