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A portrait in perseverance: Jessica Perella, UMass class of 2023

October 16, 2023

After Jessica Perella’s 2023 University of Massachusetts Amherst graduation ceremony, where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in sustainable community development, a professor invited her to a small gathering hosted by the program. 

“I went with my children and aunt, and they’re giving out all these awards. I don’t know what anything is, I’ve never graduated from anywhere so prestigious. So, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll just watch,’” said Perella, a participant of Way Finders’ Self Sufficiency Program (SSP). “I was the last one called, they said, ‘Here’s to somebody who doesn’t give up. Jessica Perella, recipient of the Perseverance Award!’”

Perella, of Holyoke, laughs as she recalls this moment. “That’s right, they saw me! I may procrastinate. But I will never stop. My time at UMass restored things that I lost maybe, from choices I made prior. My confidence and belief in myself grew.”

While other undergrads may have been juggling schoolwork with extracurriculars, Perella was raising four children—now ages six through ten—on her own. While largely relying on public transportation and working part-time as a food pantry aide at the Providence Ministries for the Needy.

“Communication is huge,” Perella said of how she made it work. “The more you communicate, the more you’re able to do. That was a lesson learned. There were times I’d get a phone call from school or daycare, and it was like, ‘I’m sorry, professor, I need to leave right now to pick up my sick child.’ And I was two hours away by bus. It was on my mind a lot, the worry about not being able to get to my kids in time before daycare closed, of them needing to wait. But I just tried to do what needs to be done. You have to keep going.”

Perella came agonizingly close to graduating in 2022 but was a few credits short. 

“I needed to retake two classes, Introduction to GIS for Planning and Judicial Planning law. They were challenging,” said Perella, who in 2018 earned an associate degree in architecture and building technology from Springfield Technical Community College. “Some people may have given up. But I turned to my faith and said, ‘The doors that He opens, no man can shut.’”

The doors to a Honda Pilot, which Perella purchased in 2022, made the last leg of her college journey infinitely more manageable. It also made everyday tasks—laundry, food shopping—less stressful.

“It’s serious freedom to have a car!” said Perella, who had to retake her driver’s test because her license was suspended. “I really did feel like I was 15 again, sitting for that test. But it’s like, ‘Let’s tell somebody else about it and better other people.’ Sometimes people feel embarrassed or shame about things they go through. But we’re all here on this earth, we all face something. If no one talks about it, you feel like you’re the only one. But when you voice it, other people can find a strength in your story, that’s what I hope for by sharing mine.”

Since joining the Self Sufficiency Program in early 2022, Perella hasn’t had to face every fear, challenge, or decision on her own. Working closely with Housing Mobility Program Specialist Sol Pagan, Perella has reached nearly all her goals ahead of her anticipated 2026 graduation. 

“The support is huge. Sol is my encouragement and my strength. Being a single mother without a lot of family in western Mass, I am all there is for my children. And it’s like, ‘Who is for me?’ I’m going to cry, Sol, I love you so much,” said Perella, who received a voucher in 2015 through the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. “Every time I started to lose faith, Sol would just happen to text me, ‘Hey, I’m checking in. You got this.’ That made a huge difference. Just those words, to have somebody to call, makes it feel possible. She is my divine helper.”

Perella’s accent reflects her roots—the outskirts of Boston—where she was raised by her grandparents. They divorced and Perella’s grandmother, her guardian, passed away. Perella feels blessed to have then lived for two years with her mother before she also passed away. With nowhere to turn, Perella and her children found shelter through the Department of Transitional Assistance.

“It wasn’t easy, it took some time before we got placed. I didn’t know where we were going. The courage it took to leave our situation, that was the beginning of a serious journey,” said Perella, who recently reunified with her fifth, and eldest, child who lives out of state. “I think life is like a puzzle. You collect pieces your whole life and when you get to a certain point, you start putting them together. Just don’t lose them!”

Beyond her degree and car, Perella has put other key pieces in place: She has opened a savings account, established credit, accepted a full-time position with her employer, and is contributing to an escrow account. (This account is established as a participant’s income and share of rent increase and may be used by graduates toward education or a home, for example.) She is excited about a future career working with children—possibly eyeing to open her own after-school program.

Perella’s one remaining SSP goal? Prepare for and pursue homeownership.

“My next move is not another apartment, it’s a house. And not just a house, but a home that we’ll keep for generations,” said Perella. “They’re not going to sell it; it will be a refuge for them. It doesn’t have to be crazy fancy, but it needs to be for us.”

“I could be all day saying how proud I am of you, Jessica, of all the hard work you have accomplished,” said Pagan. “I always say this is just the beginning, doors are going to be opening and they will be your testimony to your children. It’s like you say, putting the puzzle together. But it’s also leaving footprints, so one day they can follow in yours.”

“I couldn’t have chosen a better person to stand by me, truly,” said Perella. “I’m so grateful that she’s on my team. I cannot describe how much I’ve grown since working with her. It’s extraordinary.”