Jamaican Immigrant Perseveres to Earn Degree in Public Health, Summa Cum Laude, While Working Full-Time at Night and Caring for Her Young Children

Janelle Alfred ’22, who graduates from William Paterson University on May 18 with a bachelor’s degree in public health, summa cum laude, always envisioned herself working with those whose health needs are not always seen by society.

“I grew up in poverty in Jamaica,” says Alfred, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 2011 at age 35. “I relate to people who don’t get the resources they need because I myself have struggled to get the basics.”

Alfred. enrolled at William Paterson in fall 2020 after earning an associate’s degree from Passaic County Community College. She worked two jobs overnight—as a direct support specialist for the Catholic Charities Department of People with Developmental Disabilities, and as a home health aide—while going to school fulltime and taking care of her two young daughters, now 11 and 9. “They have always known me as a student with my face in a book or on the computer,” she says of her girls, who were 1 and 3 when she began her academic journey.

During her final semester, Alfred worked from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at an internship at the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health, which works to help women, infants and children. She would then pick up her daughters from school, sleep from 6 to 10 p.m., and then work from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays for Catholic Charities, and from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. as a home health aide on Saturday and Sunday nights.

“I was determined to get this degree,” says Alfred, who says she studied on the weekends and on her overnight shift while the person she cares for was sleeping. “I tell my daughters that if they work hard, they can achieve. They know about my work ethic.”

Alfred also completed the Global Public Health Track in the University’s Honors College, conducting research and writing a thesis on interventions for children exposed to domestic violence.

“The subject is very personal to me; I experienced domestic violence when I was young and when I was older,” she says. “I wanted to study what interventions there are for children exposed to domestic violence when they are young, how long they last, and ways you can help children regain a sense of normalcy.” Alfred read more than 2,600 articles for her project, which she presented during Honors Research Week in April.

Alfred says she gained confidence in her skills as a participant in the University’s Pesce Family Mentoring Institute, which matches students with mentors who offer career advice and guidance. “My mentor helped me see what I’m capable of,” she says. “He told me that my story – of coming here in 2011 as an immigrant, working overnight and going to school, was something an employer like him would want to hear about.” She is currently looking for employment in community health, and plans to work for a year before returning to school to become a public health nurse.

What advice would she give to others? “I would tell someone that if they believe it, they can achieve it,” Alfred says. “Nothing is ever too hard. If you want it, you can do it. You have to do it for yourself, you have to be selfish in working for what you want.”

“I used to drive past WP and always said that one day I will attend that university, not knowing that my dreams would come true,” she continues. “It was something I knew I wanted and I had a feeling I was meant to come here.”