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Caldwell achieves degree after 16-year effort
May 30, 2013
Renee Caldwell, a grandmother and an employee at the John H. Chafee Head Start Center in Newport, has dedicated her life to caring for children. She has just completed a 16-year quest to earn a degree in Early Childhood Education and Child Development from the Community College of Rhode Island.
The 52-year-old Newport resident works in the infant and toddler room at Head Start, a federally funded facility that provides child care for infants through preschool-age children with the goal of promoting school readiness. Her day begins when the first child arrives and lasts until each one has been picked up by his or her parents.
It can be a tiring job, but Caldwell wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I like being able to help the parents and the children,” she said, “and to be able to build a relationship with the family through the child.”
Many times over the years while she was earning her degree, Caldwell would end her busy day at Head Start and cross the street to CCRI’s Newport County Campus to take classes. Her relationship with CCRI is intertwined with her career at Head Start.
Caldwell, a lifelong Newport resident, first arrived at Head Start in 1994 when she enrolled her youngest daughter there. She had a job as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home at the time, but had to give up that job when she had her second daughter and couldn’t find child care.
She started working at Head Start as a bus monitor, taking advantage of the more accommodating hours and the chance to stay near her daughter during the workday. She has held many jobs with the organization over the years.
In 1995, Head Start offered parents a chance to take a class at CCRI called Parent/Child Relationships.
Caldwell was interested in the course as both a mother and a child care professional, and she traveled to the CCRI Liston Campus in Providence for the class. It was her first time in a college classroom.
“I went to secretarial school but I never had a college experience,” she said. “I was always thinking about it but I was also thinking about money and time.”
Caldwell liked what she saw and decided to enroll. She was apprehensive at first because she had two children at home, but her friends, family and pastor all urged her to do it. She started with one class per semester, sometimes two.
It was difficult taking courses while working and caring for her daughters and elderly parents, but Caldwell persevered. There were some beautiful moments, such as in the spring of 2008 when her oldest daughter graduated from high school. She was on the honor roll while Caldwell made the dean’s list at CCRI.
Caldwell, who graduated with a 3.07 GPA, will walk in the May 17 commencement ceremony. She is now the second among seven siblings to graduate from college.
“I owe this to my mother and father,” she said. “My father passed away in 2010. They were very helpful to me while I was going to school, so this is for them.”
Caldwell said her journey through college was hard sometimes, especially with her own two children to care for, “and there were a lot of prayers and tears.” Her advice for other long-term students: “Just hang in there. Just try to find people you can talk to and confide in. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Caldwell thanked her supervisor at Head Start, Lori Ryan, and her professors at CCRI, particularly Assistant Human Services Professor Carol Patnaude.
“Carol always made me feel special about the work that I do,” she said.
In the future, Caldwell said, she hopes to get more involved in working with teenage mothers because they are a big part of the population Head Start serves. Caldwell will continue working at the organization, where her granddaughter, Nadia, is enrolled.
“Some of the parents I work with now, I knew them when they were little,” she said. “This place just feels like home.”