Several weeks after she applied for inaugural 2009 James H. Ammons fellowship, Joane Theodule drove four hours this past spring for an unannounced visit to Florida A&M’s campus to ensure she was chosen.
“I didn’t know she was coming! Something about that just impressed the heck out of me,” said Dr. Chanta Haywood, the dean of graduate studies and research at Florida A&M who approved Theodule’s fellowship.
“Anybody who drives that far without an appointment, (then) I better see them. I have never seen anybody so focused.”
Forced to live on her own as a teenager, at first in her car and later in an apartment she financed from part-time jobs, Theodule had to be focused.
“That’s when I was determined to finish high school and pursue higher education because no one in my family went to college,” she said. “Nothing was going to stop me.”
“The obstacles made me stronger. God just gave me the strength to make it,” said Theodule, who said she endured years of abuse after her family moved from Haiti to Central Florida.
The 22-year-old Haitian native is now a first-year graduate student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where she became the first of six students to receive the Ammons award, named after the school’s president. The scholarship pays for Theodule’s tuition and fees, health insurance, travel to a professional conference, research supplies and a laptop for two years. She also receives an annual $9,000 stipend to work as a graduate research assistant.
She graduated from high school in 2005 but refused to attend the ceremony for lack of family support. After taking classes at Columbia College in Orlando, she sought a change of scenery. She found a new family 60 miles north in Daytona Beach at Bethune-Cookman University in fall 2007, but life didn’t get easier.
She worked up to three part-time jobs to pay tuition, books and other living expenses, but took at least 18 credits each semester and about two summer classes at Daytona Beach College. During a four-month stretch, she didn’t have enough money to pay for gas and hot water.
Theodule still found time to tutor fellow students, volunteer at a local community center and join the National Council of Negro Women. She also was senior class parliamentarian.
Theodule graduated in May from Bethune-Cookman with a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in public administration.
A partial scholarship from Coca-Cola helped finance her education.
She also received some help from Bethune’s only full-time switchboard operator, Patricia Singleton. The 14-year Bethune employee, whom Theodule calls ‘mom,’ bought Theodule food, researched social service agencies to assist her and attended Theodule’s college graduation.
“I was yelling and screaming. I was so proud of her. Her own mother didn’t even come to her graduation,” Singleton said. “Joane’s attitude makes you want to love her. She always greets you with a smile and a hug. She always had a positive outlook on life and never had anything negative to say. That’s why I consider her one of my children.”
Theodule set a one-year timetable to complete her graduate work in applied sciences with a concentration in public administration. She wants to finish law school at age 26 to become an immigration attorney.
“I have a time frame on what I do in life because I want to do so much,” she said. “I want to be situated and take care of my three younger siblings so they don’t have to go through. … the struggles I went through. This is not easy at all but it can be done.”