JFK Award Winner Defies Obstacles
September 15, 2009
June 07, 2011
At age 16, Marblehead native Alia MacPherson was just like any other student at her private high school. She earned good grades, and was beginning to think seriously about where she might apply to college.
No one would have pegged her for a potential dropout.
But everything in MacPherson's life changed that year when a member of her family experienced a medical crisis. She was forced to quit school and begin working two jobs to help support her family. She earned her GED, and shelved her dreams of college for years – until 2006, when a summer class she took at UMass Boston inspired her to apply for admission.
“It took me almost a decade of working both full- and part-time jobs, and surviving a four-letter word I call life, before the opportunity to go to college presented itself to me,” MacPherson said. "All I knew when I walked in the doors of UMass Boston was that I wanted an education and that I was ready to conquer whatever obstacles got in my way."
MacPherson not only conquered obstacles, but managed to rise to the top of her class in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, one of the most competitive nursing schools in New England.
She graduated on Friday, June 3, with the highest honor given to undergraduate students, the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence.
Speaking during UMass Boston's 43rd Commencement, MacPherson told her fellow graduates to never accept the word "no" when fighting for their destinies.
"There were a thousand and one reasons why pursuing a college education at that exact moment in my life was not ideal," she said. "But there was a much stronger pull that said 'What if this is your last chance? What if is this is your only chance? What happens if you never get the chance to try again?'"
As a UMass Boston student, MacPherson was the president of her nursing class, an academic peer advisor, a student representative on the Student Affairs Committee, and a member of the International Nursing Honor Society and the Golden Key International Honour Society.
She earned three separate scholarships in recognition of her academic achievements, and also received the prestigious Dean’s Award for Nursing at the convocation ceremony for the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Even more impressive, MacPherson spends her evenings working two jobs to help pay for her education, balancing her studies with a 60-hour work week.
Chancellor J. Keith Motley presented the JFK Award to MacPherson at commencement, applauding her hard work and service.
“Her professors are unanimous in their admiration of her fine mind,” Chancellor Motley said, “and she has never closed her heart to giving back.”
Lecturer Mary Ellen Jagelski said that MacPherson’s drive to succeed is matched only by her compassion for others.
“Alia cares,” she said. “She cares about herself, and her abilities. She cares about her classmates. She cares about the world around her. And on a personal note, Alia cared for me.”
When Jagelski was diagnosed with breast cancer, a fact she shared with her students before spring break in 2010, MacPherson organized her classmates to show up after break wearing pink T-shirts and breast cancer ribbons. She also organized a team to walk the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, “and walked 26 miles the week before finals,” raising $7,000 for cancer research, Jagelski said.
Jagelski called MacPherson “a model student in the academic forum, as well as in clinical areas,” praising her ability to meld theoretical knowledge and critical thinking with “compassion, support, insight, and caring with her clients and their families.”
Assistant Professor of Nursing Eileen Stuart-Shor accepted MacPherson into her service program Kenya Heart and Sole: Afya Njema as a sophomore nursing student.
“I don’t ordinarily accept students until their junior year,” Stuart-Shor said, “but my sense was that she was a unique student and that this experience would be transformational for her.”
In Kenya, Stuart-Shor’s team of student nurses from UMass Boston and Kenyan nursing schools set up mobile clinics to screen villagers for heart disease and diabetes. MacPherson found a passion for service in this work, and returned the next year as a peer advisor, mentoring new team members and organizing daily activities for the clinics.
While in Kenya, MacPherson said, “I realized that in regard to health, we are in the midst of a local and global crisis. I made the conscious decision to spend my life and career reducing these barriers for individuals as well as populations across the world.”
In service of that goal, MacPherson will study at Yale University’s Family Nursing Practitioner program this fall. Although her advisor, clinical associate professor Deborah Lind Mahony, cautioned MacPherson that programs such as Yale’s tend to accept only those students with “years of clinical experience,” MacPherson was accepted on her outstanding academic record and the enthusiastic recommendations of her faculty advisors and mentors.
These honors are sweet for MacPherson, whose career at UMass Boston began with a series of rejections. After deciding to apply to the College of Nursing and Health Sciences to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who worked as a nurse, MacPherson applied to the program three times before she was accepted.
“I still have all of my rejection letters, framed above my desk, reminding me that ‘no’ only applies until you get a ‘yes’”, she said.
Read more about Alia MacPherson in the Newton Tab newspaper.
See more commencement photos on the UMass Boston Flickr site.