Charlene McKay becomes emotional when she talks about graduating from the School of Professional and Continuing Studies with a bachelor’s in psychology. That’s because McKay, who has been taking classes for 11 years, thought this day would never come.
In 2006, McKay began taking courses at Fordham without telling her relatives.
“I wanted a degree that was recognizable and prestigious and to me that’s what Fordham is,” she said. “Everybody knows Fordham.”
Over the course of her schooling, she had to balance several responsibilities: She got married; she worked full time at major brokerage firms, and; she helped raise her nieces and nephews for her twin sister.
It’s no small miracle, she said, that she has made it to college at all. McKay and her fraternal twin sister were born addicted, as both of their parents were chronic heroin users. Her mother died a few years later and her father abandoned the twins shortly thereafter. McKay said that foster parents took them in as a source of income—and she doesn’t flinch when telling the story.
“I don’t have any shame; who wants to be born addicted to heroin?” she said. “I never did drugs because I saw what it did to people.”
Even though she never succumbed, her parents’ affliction became the family’s legacy, affecting both her brother and her sister. She said her foster mother was abusive, telling her and her sister that they “came from nothing” and they’d “amount to nothing.”
“I remember holding my sister’s face in my hands, telling her, ‘Don’t listen to them, they don’t know what they’re talking about.’”
For the young McKay, school became her “great escape.” Growing up, she rarely missed a day. After high school she enrolled at the State University of New York at New Paltz, but found that her education had left her ill prepared for college life. After struggling for two years, she returned home to Harlem, where she found an apartment and a job.
She also stepped in to help her sister, who had two older children, was pregnant with a third, and was struggling with an addiction. After the birth, child services was threatening to take her sister’s baby, who was born addicted, and put it in foster care. So McKay adopted the newborn.
“I said, ‘we can’t continue this, this is a cycle and we need to break the cycle.’”
Even though her career rose at a steady clip—she worked at Paine Webber, Bear Stearns, Mariner Investments, and finally at Guggenheim Securities where she works now—the desire to finish college was still nagging at her. So on a friend’s encouragement she came to Fordham.
“I thought if she could do, then I can do it,” she said.
She is hoping that her graduation will come as a surprise to many in the family, including her sister, whose steady recovery over the years has made her proud. With her degree, she hopes to help children overcome abuses like those she and her sister faced.
Although she does not blame anyone for her “unfortunate circumstances” while growing up, remnants of her childhood remain. She said fear of failure sometimes nags at her.
“I still never believed I could do this, but at Fordham the deans and professors really believed in me,” she said.