Waiting for the Late Bus, a Friendship Is Forged

Katly Toles and Lukiki Akola often had to wait around to take the last bus home after their Clemente Course at the Care Center in Holyoke, MA. The time that could have been drudgery instead nurtured a friendship that has the two women calling each other mother and daughter. Now the Clemente graduates will be supporting one another as they both continue toward a degree at the Bard Microcollege.

Very different journeys brought Katly and Lukiki to Clemente.

Katly was born in the U.S. but spent her younger years in Haiti. After finishing high school in Brooklyn, she took a few secretarial classes, but focused on working and raising her three children. She was at work as a security guard at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the losses from that day are still very present for her.

School didn’t seem an option for Katly until her oldest son came home from buying his college textbooks and handed her a book bag, notebooks, and some pencils. “What are you trying to tell me?” she asked him.

“I don’t know, Mom,” he answered, “What do you think?”

“He knew it!” Lukiki chimes in, hearing the story. And he did—a year later Katly was enrolled in Clemente. A week after she completed the program, her son graduated with honors from Springfield Technical Community College.

Lukiki’s journey began in Central Africa. She was born in the Congo, but raised mostly in neighboring Zambia, sometimes in a refugee camp and sometimes at her grandmother’s. She came to the U.S.  in 2015. English is her fifth of seven languages, and the idea of taking a class that focused on reading and writing intimidated her.

“I didn’t want to write anything,” she says, “and I didn’t want anyone to read anything I’d written.”

But with the encouragement of a mentor at the Care Center, she took a chance and applied to Clemente. “I was so excited when they accepted me,” she says. “You can have a plan inside you, but without someone to lead you to the destination, you cannot express it.”

The women, whose rapport and affection is apparent to anyone who meets them, admit that their time in Clemente wasn’t easy. Both considered quitting after facing the unfamiliar material and heavy reading. In fact, Katly jokes that she declared “I quit!” nearly every class, all the way up to graduation, when she was chosen class speaker.

Katly gives her graduation speech.

The support of the faculty and staff—and each other—enabled them to continue on, not missing any sessions through the year. Waiting together for the bus, they would talk over class and try to work through difficult material together. And they would play with Lukiki’s two-year-old daughter, Emily, who adored Katly from the beginning. When they finished the program, Lukiki was given the Next Step award to continue school, and both were offered the opportunity to keep working toward a degree.

The Care Center, which focuses on bringing education and arts to young mothers, is entering its 20th year of offering a Clemente Course, making it the longest continuously running program in the country. In 2016 it became site of the first Bard Microcollege, a new model for bringing education to the community by offering college classes with a local partnering organization.

For students like Katly and Lukiki, it means they continue toward an associate’s degree with the kind of support they received as Clemente students. This summer they’ve been taking a seminar on the Odyssey titled “The Raveling” and both have fallen in love with the book.

They agree that their time in Clemente prepared them for their next steps.

“I’ve grown as a person with the Clemente program,” says Katly, who appreciated the diversity of the classroom in Holyoke. “Sitting down and being able to have a conversation with people of different nationalities and points of view broadened my perspective and mindset.”

And Lukiki, who feared putting pen to paper, says, “I love writing now! I used to feel the teachers were putting pressure on me, but now I know they were building me up. I have progressed from one step to the other.”

Katly and Lukiki plan to support each other toward their degrees, taking comfort in having a familiar face in the classroom—and on the bus.

“Helping her a lot of times means helping me, because it takes my attention off my fears. It keeps me going too,” Katly says. “She’s a beautiful person and I love her. And I love her daughter. She’s my granddaughter.”

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