From teen mom to cybersecurity analyst with US Homeland SecurityWednesday, July 21, 2021
BY AKERA DAVIS
LIME TREE GARDEN, St Ann — At 16, Antoinette Shirley, an impressionable young girl living in Lime Tree Garden, St Ann, had two things in mind — mothering her newborn child as best as she could and finding a way to make her dreams become reality. The latter was the more daunting of the two tasks.
Today the 40-year-old is proud of her accomplishments, the most recent being a master's degree in homeland security border protection from Keiser University in Florida. This means she is qualified to protect the borders of the United States from terrorists, entry of illegal weapons or anything deemed illegal or harmful to its citizens.
On July 16, a proud and confident Shirley, with her daughter Shai looking on in admiration, strutted across the stage of the Caloosa Sound Convention Centre in Florida, to accept her degree.
“I heard Shai shouting, 'Mommy', and I felt so good. All that was going through my mind was how much I sacrificed for us to be here. I remember sometimes I had to leave her in Jamaica with family, friends and even neighbours helping out so I could go to school and then come into the US to work. It was really difficult to deal with the separation and watch my only child grow up without me but I had my eyes set on the end results,” Shirley told the Jamaica Observer.
It was tough, she said, to juggle a full-time job in the tourist industry that sometimes saw her working 14-hour days, with an online, full-time master's programme.
“Three times… I almost gave up because it was not easy… especially when there is not much family around you and other elements working against you. But I made it work,” she said.
She is now eagerly looking forward to transitioning into her role as a cybersecurity intelligence analyst with the homeland security team.
An elated Shirley explained why she chose that career path.
“The US has done a lot for me, my daughter, and my family, indirectly. I could not [join] the military because of my age [at the time I was ready to apply], so I felt being a part of the homeland security team is the best way to give back to the United States,” she said.
Looking back on her humble beginnings in a rural community where she was not provided with much opportunity, she explained that her late father Noel Shirley was her motivation to make a difference. Sadly, he died from a heart attack in 2005.
“My father was the type of person who was always grounded. He believed in education and going after what you want. I saw him work three jobs and I always wanted to be successful like him, to one day turn things around,” she said. “I wish he could be here to see me. But he is in heaven smiling at me because three days before the graduation I saw him in a dream — the first time in about 10 years — and both of us were crying tears of joy.”
The Northern Caribbean University (NCU) graduate has lived in the United States for the past 11 years. Her journey began when she went on the work and study programme which opened her eyes to the opportunities available outside of Jamaica. Over a two-year period while at NCU she went abroad two times for work and study, then in 2009 she left the country to take up a job as a hotel manager in North Carolina. Three years later she moved to Florida where she has been working as an assistant food and beverage director at Lexington Country Club. She admits it is a bit scary to start a new career after more than 20 years in a field she loves.
“I love the hospitality industry but… I'm all about growth and experience. I look forward to making my mark and serving as best as possible,” she said. “I still feel like I have a lot more to achieve and give; but I have come a far way, for which I'm grateful.”
“Success isn't always about greatness but consistency. Sometimes we are tested not to show our weakness but to discover our strengths,” she added.
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