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Mom thanks God as son overcomes poverty to earn PhD at age 25

Nelson got wake-up call from mom’s warning

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, June 23, 2014    

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WHEN teen mother Angelita Kelly was left to raise her month-old son by herself after his father abandoned them for another woman, the then 17-year-old said she knew she had to do whatever it took to give her child a better life than the one she had.

From her first job as a waitress, to working as a domestic helper, a shopkeeper and a chicken farmer, Kelly did it all to ensure her son, Peter Nelson, would receive the education she was denied by her father, who preferred to spend his money in bars.

Today, her hard work has paid off as her son has exceeded even her own expectations, having become one of the youngest persons, if not the youngest, at the University of the West Indies (UWI) to receive a doctorate in chemistry by age 25.

Dr Nelson, who is also the first to complete both an MPhil and a PhD in three-and-a-half years, also beat out 275 worldwide applicants to claim one of the five doctoral fellowships at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, beginning this August.

The St Thomas Technical High past student has also been published in seven international journals, including Journal of Molecular Structure, Journal of Chemical Thermodynamics, Dalton Transactions and International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

In August 2010, he presented a paper on the Phase Behaviours of Zinc Carboxylates at a IUPAC-sponsored MAM 10 conference and, in August 2012, he gave a presentation on the Molecular and Lattice Structures of Sodium(I) Carboxylates at the American Chemical Society Conference in Philadelphia.

His doctoral thesis, awarded on October 25, 2013, titled The Molecular Packing, Lattice Structures and Thermotropic Phase Behaviours of the Homologous Series of Silver, Sodium and Potassium n-Alkanoates, examines compounds used to make bathing soaps and detergents, which form liquid crystals with the application of heat and are also applicable in liquid crystal display (LCD) devices.

“I am really very proud of him,” Kelly told the Jamaica Observer North East from her St Maarten home, where she has lived for the past seven years.

“Everyday ah thank God fi how Him help mi son and had a plan for him, because not even me did dream my son could come out so good,” a grateful Kelly said.

The 43-year-old Kelly said she always drilled into Nelson’s head that an education was the only way out of the impoverished life they lived in the tough St Thomas community in which he grew up.

According to Kelly, her teachers had always pointed to her academic abilities, but she never got the chance to realise her full potential as her father preferred to drink and get drunk instead of ensuring that she had the tools for going to school.

“When I was growing up my father used to drink out the money and mi had to go school without breakfast or any lunch money or books, and so life was very hard,” she recalled.

This was the struggle she was faced with when she met and fell in love with Nelson’s father. But the happiness she initially found was short-lived when he left her with their one-month-old son to pursue another relationship with a woman who also gave birth to a child a few months later.

“He never helped with him because maybe he thought my son would not come to nothing because ah never had no education. Him used to go farm work, and when I ask him if him bring anything for Peter he would say it is in the barrel.

But when next I see him he always say the barrel lost,” she recalled.

Kelly said, by then, she was almost homeless. as her father had promptly put her out the house when she became pregnant.

Faced with no means of survival, she took her first job as a waitress when her son was only a year old. She recalled working a salary of $80 per week and having to pay $120 in babysitting charges.

“It was a good thing I got tips, because that was what I had to live off,” she said. However, when that salary could no longer meet her financial needs, Kelly took a job as a live-in helper in the parish and was delighted at the opportunity to keep her son on the job.

She later pursued training as a practical nurse, but when live-in jobs kept her away from her son for too long she gave up that profession and opened a small grocery shop before moving into chicken rearing.

The need to earn a better income was motivated by Kelly wanting to have Nelson attend preparatory school like the children of the upper class families for whom she had worked.

She recalled throwing ‘partners’ and ensuring she would get her draw in time for the new school term so she could pay his fees, and buy all his uniform and books for the remainder of the year.

But the prep school environment was not the most conducive for Nelson, who sometimes got into scuffles with other children, forcing her to move him from three different prep schools in a short time.

The last straw, she recalled, was when she was summoned to the school after Nelson put sand in another child’s mouth. And when she moved him to Morant Bay Primary, Kelly said Nelson saw this as the perfect opportunity to goof around and play cricket instead of attending classes.

“I used to go out there with a whip and whip him straight to class, because I say ‘Peter, you see how hard I have to work for you’,” she recalled.

But even as she juggled her role as a single parent and breadwinner, Kelly saw to it that her son did not lose sight of the importance of getting a good education.

However, in his first semester at St Thomas Technical High, when he placed second to last in his class of 40 students, Kelly said she had only one word of warning for him.

“I said to him, ‘yuh see how hard I have to work. If I had an education I wouldn’t have to work so hard, and so if you joke out your time you will end up like the boys on the corner’,” Kelly recalled.

That was the wake-up call for Nelson, whose next report reflected the academic performance he would maintain throughout the next decade of his life. Not only did he settle down with his schoolwork, but he was never to be found hanging out, although they lived in one of the tougher communities in the parish.

“To this day him don’t hang out with company; him talk to everyone, but him don’t keep no company,” she said. Kelly said once Nelson settled down with his schoolwork she ensured he got the necessary help which she could not provide and enrolled him into an adult CSEC class in Morant Bay.

“I wanted him to get help with maths because I remember when I went to school there was a teacher who use to beat me when I couldn’t do the work, and that caused me to be afraid of school and not want to go, and so I didn’t want that to happen to him,” she recalled.

Nelson was to give her the first of many surprises in his academic pursuit when he sat and passed English in grade nine and mathematics and human and social biology by grade 10.

After completing high school, Kelly said she took him to the College of Agriculture, Science, and Education (CASE) to pursue a two-year associate degree in Natural Science with the understanding that, on completion, he would go straight into UWI to do another two years of studies in order to qualify for his bachelor’s degree.

On his last year at CASE, Kelly said she realised more money was needed to fund his education and she jumped at the opportunity to go to St Maarten to work.

Kelly lauded the efforts of Member of Parliament Dr Fenton Ferguson, whom she asked to write to CASE requesting additional time to pay the fees as she needed that money to show in order to gain landing in St Maarten.

“After I got there I was able to send back the money to pay his fees and I am thankful to Mr Ferguson for that,” she said. Her efforts to finance his studies paid off when Nelson graduated with top marks, gaining him a scholarship to UWI’s advanced MPhil and PhD programmes.

But Kelly, who never had another child, said that was a deliberate choice as she knew she would never be able to give her child the life he deserved if she had other mouths to feed.

“He was also very smart, because I remember he said to me one day ‘you better don’t have no more children because if you do I am going to suffer, and I will end up having to be the father to that child’,” Kelly recalled.

Kelly, who encouraged parents to play an active role in their children’s school life, said she always made it her duty to meet her son’s teachers and be kept up-to-date on his progress.

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