METADATA FOR EMTAF
Her 10-year wait for college degree was worth it
Lynn’s Melanie Casablanca, 31, tried several programs before she found the one that fit: UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls.
By Julia Preszler
When Melanie Casablanca received her bachelor’s degree in May at the age of 31, it concluded a nearly decade-long effort. The Lynn resident tried several college programs until she found one that fit — UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls.
UWW, as it’s commonly known, is designed to give adults who never finished college a second chance. Casablanca will use her degree in child care administration to open a day care center in Salem, N.H., along with her mother and sister.
“Even though I was not 100 percent successful with the school system in the traditional way,’’ she said, “I believe in education.”
Casablanca managed to advance hers by taking UWW classes online for three years while working full time at the MilliporeSigma plant in Danvers, which produces customized medical products. She started there 10 years ago and rose through the ranks, and now supervises about 50 people.
“They should actually not let people go to [college] right after high school,” she said. “They should work and they should understand what they really want to do.”
Casablanca grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Massachusetts to be closer to Boston Children’s Hospital, where she had multiple surgeries beginning at the age of 13 to address a malformation of the veins in her mouth. Finishing high school proved to be too difficult between the surgeries and the move, so Casablanca completed a GED instead.
Shortly after arriving here, she started volunteering at the day care and afterschool center at Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a South End nonprofit that provides housing and other supportive services. She continued to work with children at Head Start.
But her dream of earning a college degree never died. She was in and out of several programs before discovering UWW, where something clicked for her.
“I went to their orientation and the vibe was different,” she said. “They cared. They wanted people to stay.”
Also crucial to her success, she said, was Lisa Fontes, her UWW adviser, who checked in with Casablanca regularly by phone and e-mail. Once, Casablanca made the trip to Amherst and the two met at a coffee shop and talked about her goals.
“It was clear that she had an awareness of the predicament of her community and she wanted to help others,” Fontes said. “She was not just thinking about how she could get rich herself.”
When her family-run day care center opens in September, she will continue to work full time at MilliporeSigma while her mother and sister handle the center’s day-to-day responsibilities. Drawing on their experiences working in child care, they hope to create a bilingual program infused with science, technology, engineering, and math topics and plenty of opportunities for parental involvement.
The University Without Walls typically graduates about 400 students a year, with students paying from $1,170 to $1,928 per class, about the same as those who attend the brick-and-mortar school.
But many of the UWW students take just two or three classes per semester, making getting a degree more affordable. Many, too, receive university credits for work experience relevant to their degree concentrations. Those students take a semester-long online class, guided by a UWW adviser, during which they write about and reflect on their past professional experience.
“Sometimes, when we don’t have an education, we feel bad,” Casablanca said. “But when you sit down and you read all of the experience you had and the things you have done, it feels amazing.”
In her free time, Casablanca volunteers with Budget Buddies, a Chelmsford-based nonprofit that helps women become more financially independent.
She was inspired by a period in her own life when she struggled financially but — through independent research — was able to improve her credit score and purchase two houses. Now, she is using her savings and an SBA loan to finance the day care center.
Casablanca would like to get a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. She said her experience at UWW has helped her to hone her study habits.
“I have a system in place that works. I have proven to myself that it works,” she said. “This program gave me the opportunity and the confidence.”
Julia Preszler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.