N’Daijia Dubose was the first in her large family to go to college, then life got in the way. Given a chance to start over, she seized the opportunity and is now flourishing.
By Dan Gordon
N’Daijia Dubose was fired up.
She and her cousin had just completed an information session for Year Up Greater Boston, and now Dubose, who had endured a string of low-paying and unsatisfying jobs in the two years since economic and personal hardships had forced her to drop out of college, could finally see a different path.
“We left there so excited,” she recalls. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to do this right.’ ”
Dubose was raised by parents determined to see her succeed in ways that her siblings — all 14 of them — hadn’t. The youngest of 15 (but the only child her parents had together), she grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, with a firsthand view of how economic disparities fuel the Opportunity Divide. “If you walked five minutes one way you were in ‘the hood,’ a dangerous area where you knew not to go at night,” Dubose recalls. “If you walked five minutes the other way it was middle income, with quiet neighborhoods and nicer houses.”
Dubose considers her circumstances to have been somewhere in between. Her home was relatively spacious — three bedrooms with an upstairs, downstairs, basement and good-sized backyard. For much of her childhood it was Dubose, three half-siblings, and a steady flow of cousins and older half-siblings dropping in for visits or extended stays. “My mom was the cool aunt, so we were sort of the ‘chill house,’ where there was always something going on,” she says. Even after Dubose’s parents split up when she was 11, her father remained in her life. “I’m a daddy’s girl,” Dubose says fondly. “To this day I can always call him if I’m having a problem and he’ll try to help me figure it out.”
It was only later that Dubose realized her family had struggled more than she knew. “There were a lot of problems, but my mom didn’t want us to see it,” she says. Dubose’s mother held a variety of low-paying jobs, but relied on both food stamps and Section 8 federal housing assistance to stay afloat. One of Dubose’s half-brothers had been born with drugs in his system, a disability that ultimately led to his placement in a group home for drug-exposed children. Dubose’s other half-siblings had their own problems — one is currently serving time in federal prison, another was involved in gang activity before turning his life around. None attended college. “They would move in and out of the house, never having the greatest jobs,” Dubose recalls.
For her it was going to be different. “All of my siblings went to regular public schools and didn’t get the best education,” Dubose says. “I was always in charter schools, some of the better schools in Boston. My mom would say, ‘You have to go to college. Somebody has to make it so I feel like I did my job.’ My siblings, too…they wanted more for me. It was a lot of pressure for a kid.”
Rebelling against the family pressure and her academically rigorous high school, Dubose wasn’t so sure college was for her. Then she saw Drumline, the 2002 film featuring students in the marching band at a predominantly black university in Atlanta. “I wanted to be engaged in my environment, not just focused on the academics, and when I saw that culture I decided I wanted to go to a historically black college in the South,” Dubose says. She applied to two and was accepted, only to become dismayed when she was offered little financial aid.
Enrolling instead at Rhode Island College in Providence, where she didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket, Dubose quickly realized she had made the right choice. After starting in biochemistry, she decided to double major in psychology and criminal justice. Two of her best friends were there with her, and for a time college life was all Dubose wanted. “Once I went away to school, I never wanted to come home,” she says, laughing.
But then a series of setbacks threw her off course. By the time Dubose came home for the summer at the completion of her third year of college, her mother had been forced to move in with a friend after her federal housing assistance was reduced. That left Dubose to find shelter in the home of another family member, separated from the parent with whom she was so close. Then, as Dubose prepared to return to school for the fall, she learned her own aid was being reduced. As she was struggling to figure out her finances, she required emergency surgery to remove her gall bladder. Dubose ended up not going back to school and spending much of the next two years facing an uncertain future.
She went through a series of retail, restaurant and other service jobs, never staying long. As Dubose saw it, these were thankless positions — high expectations for little pay. She had no tolerance for poor management and often felt like she was being blamed for the shortcomings of her supervisors. Dubose also admits to her own unprofessional behaviors during that time, whether it was showing up late or failing to give notice when she was leaving a job. “A manager would give me attitude and I’d just quit and find something else,” she says.
In 2017, Dubose was scrolling through her Facebook feed when she came across photos of a friend’s Year Up graduation. Intrigued, she asked her cousin to join her in attending an information session later that week. “She agreed, which was good because I had already signed her up for it,” Dubose quips. The information session left both determined to turn their lives around. “We left with a new mindset: We were going to get internships, and there was no way we were going to finish without getting jobs,” Dubose says. Three weeks later, she was sitting in a Year Up classroom.
By the time she had completed six months of classroom learning, Dubose was eager to put her new skills into practice in a professional environment she knew would be much different from anything she had experienced. For her internship she was placed at Partners Healthcare, the Boston-based nonprofit hospital and physicians network. At first Dubose wondered whether she would be up to the task. “I was in the finance department, and I had no experience with finance,” she says. “But my manager told me half of the people in the department didn’t have a finance background. She assigned me a mentor, and my coworkers all helped out with the training. Everyone made me comfortable and treated me like a professional.”
Dubose was also able to lean on her Year Up mentor — Adriana Garcia, a member of Year Up’s executive operations team. “Any time I was having a problem or experiencing doubt, Adriana was the one to talk me off of the ledge, keep me focused and, when necessary, connect me with someone who could help,” Dubose says. “I love her and I still talk to her.”
Dubose started in collections for a department that handles the finances for the research conducted by the network’s physicians, with tasks that included running reports on outstanding invoices and contacting sponsors to obtain payment status updates. “I was in the habit of figuring things out on my own, but I had to get used to asking a lot of questions when I didn’t understand something,” she says. “It’s finance — you can’t make mistakes!”
She proved to be a quick study, and was soon asking for more. Once Dubose would complete her own work, she would take on projects for other managers. In the process, members of the managerial team got to know her and recognize her skills. When a position opened up on the cash team — handling payments for physicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — a manager recommended Dubose as someone likely to pick it up quickly, and suggested that if all went well, she could be hired for the position.
Dubose rapidly adapted to the new responsibilities, but as her six-month internship was drawing to a close, she didn’t know what to expect. Two days before the internship was to end, Dubose was called in by her department’s vice president. “She told me I had been an asset, that she was proud of all I had accomplished, and that they wanted to keep me on,” Dubose says. “I was so excited, knowing I had achieved what I set out to do.”
Now she’s setting her sights higher. “There’s so much opportunity for growth here,” Dubose says. “My department is big on cross training — if you’re on one team, they encourage you to shadow somebody on another team. And they tell you that if you see a better opportunity somewhere else in the company, you should take it.” She is also pursuing growth of another kind: At the urging of her manager, Dubose has begun taking classes at Southern New Hampshire University. By the spring she hopes to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
The independence she’s granted at Partners Healthcare is like nothing Dubose had experienced before. On occasion she takes her laptop to one of the building’s open areas, sitting on the couch to do her work. “As long as I’m getting my work done, my boss trusts me — and I don’t give her any reason not to,” Dubose says. The diverse and inclusive environment at Partners has added to her comfort level. Once a month the finance department holds a diversity luncheon focusing on a specific country, typically suggested by employees with roots there. “It’s a great way to get to know our colleagues, and their culture,” Dubose says.
In August, Dubose celebrated her one-year anniversary at Partners — more than double the time she had ever spent at any previous position. “In the time since I started Year Up, I probably would have had about 10 jobs that I wouldn’t have liked,” she says. “Year Up is the greatest opportunity, as long as you’re ready for it. I was ready, and this experience at Partners Healthcare has helped me to mature and grow as a professional.”