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A Private Journey to Public Health

Shady Grove Student Overcomes Hardships to Earn Degree

By Charlie Wright


Mike Morgan

Mike Morgan

Orphan. Immigrant. Dropout. Mother of four. Francine Baker is all of these. But this month, she can also call herself a college graduate.

Along the way to her bachelor’s degree in public health science from the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health at the Universities at Shady Grove, she has faced violent family tragedy, reconnected with lost siblings and nursed her children through painful chronic illness. The challenges caused her to withdraw from college twice before—but this time she’s wearing the cap and gown.

Baker’s childhood in Jamaica was as tumultuous as it was tragic. While coming home from a night out, her parents were murdered under circumstances that remain mysterious. “I’ve had the story told to me so many different times, and it’s changed from individual to individual,” she says.

Shy of 2 years old at the time, Baker bounced between relatives and family friends until around age 5, when she was adopted by her paternal grandmother and her husband, who lived on Long Island. (Baker still isn’t sure of her own age: Her birth certificate says she was born in 1978, but adoption papers read 1977.)

Growing up, Baker longed for a stronger connection to her birth parents—and to the half-siblings she didn’t know. She also struggled to fit in at elementary school, where her Jamaican accent made her a magnet for teasing. Her adoptive parents and the school psychologist concluded that “it was best for me to lose the only thing I had left that identified me as being affiliated with Jamaica,” Baker says: her accent. She learned—not entirely willingly—to speak American-style English through speech therapy lessons.

Baker’s adoptive mother hoped that Francine would go to college and become a nurse. During her first crack at university life, Baker attended Valencia College in Florida, hoping to instead become a doctor. She struggled with higher-level science courses and ultimately decided to go for an EMT certification.

Then her first child, James, was born with sickle cell anemia, as was his sister, Jasmin, born just under a year later. Baker transformed from student to full-time caregiver, as both children required frequent doctor’s visits, and Baker was constantly wrangling with insurers. (Baker’s daughter, now 16, still receives monthly blood transfusions.)

She tried again seven years after first dropping out, enrolling at Seminole State to study early childhood education, but that was snuffed out when her husband’s job took the family to Maryland.

Even when the kids went off to school, Baker knew their medical needs wouldn’t allow her to work full-time, but “I wanted to do something else,” she says. In 2013, she began taking courses in public health, inspired by her experiences with her children. She soon embraced the experience full-time and excelled during her two years at Montgomery College.

Maureen Edwards, a health education professor, encouraged her to pursue public health at the Universities at Shady Grove. “Because of what she’s been through, she’s really developed a lot of compassion and empathy for people,” says Edwards. “When you’ve never been tested, you don’t know, but she has been tested.”

The program has been the right fit for Baker: “It really fell in line with what I was already doing with my kids, just being an advocate, increasing my awareness and understanding of how the system works,” says Baker.

At Shady Grove, where the Public Health Science courses are taught by UMD faculty, Baker can always be found in the front of the classroom, recording lectures and avoiding the distractions of the back rows, “where troublemakers sit.”

Baker says her kids support her just as much as her classmates, even as they are locked in an unspoken battle over who can earn the highest GPA.

Baker has applied to graduate school for a master’s degree in public health, and plans to pursue a Ph.D. after that, either in public health or the biological sciences.

“Being able to make a meaningful contribution outside of my own family—that’s really what I’m looking forward to,” she says.

Staff Writer Sala Levin ’10 contributed to this story. 

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.