Madelyn Disla beamed from the stage as she received her diploma from Dartmouth College that spring day in 2011, thrusting her arms in the air, then posing in a tiara that read “Princess Grad.” The valedictorian from struggling Charlestown High had conquered the Ivy League.
How painfully distant that achievement felt a little more than a year later as she laid her 1-month-old son, Emir, in a donated wooden crib at St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester. Instead of chasing her dreams on Wall Street or at a top-shelf law school, she was homeless. And when the wooden crib collapsed, spilling her son onto the floor, Disla saw just how far she had fallen.
“He was crying,” she recalled. “I was crying, too.”
The boy would be fine. But the terrifying moment crystallized for Disla the depth of her desperation as a new mother, jobless and coping with the crippling effects of depression and anxiety. How it happened is a modern-day parable about a system that disfavors students from low-income, immigrant families, leaving them little room for error when things go wrong.
Plenty of young adults and fresh college graduates face unexpected challenges and struggle with mental health. What Disla did not have — what many of Boston’s valedictorians do not have — was the luxury to drift, to not get things exactly right, to make mistakes. Even if they completed college, Disla and many of her peers lacked parents who had navigated the white-collar job market before them. They had limited professional networks and connections. They had no financial cushion to soften life’s inevitable blows.
Disla received considerable help from mentoring programs in college, but one of her mentors didn’t realize at the time the extent of her depression at Dartmouth — in part because Disla kept her struggles to herself.
And so that bright, eager young woman with the Dartmouth diploma soon resorted to couch surfing, aching in silence, all while trying in vain to find a job. The St. Ambrose shelter became the only place Disla could lay her weary head when her own family could not offer her a room.
“I had no other choice,” she said.
Disla wasn’t about to let an unsteady upbringing stop her from soaring.
She was born in the Dominican Republic in 1989, and her parents split up when she was young. She spent most of her childhood living with her father in Boston and later, against her father’s wishes, with her mother in the Dominican Republic. She returned to Boston for 10th grade, enrolling at Charlestown High and staying with her grandmother in Roxbury. She made an immediate impression at school, succeeding despite her frequent moves.
“I often forgot that she was just a teenager because the maturity she showed … was astounding,’’ her high school counselor wrote to the Charlestown headmaster at the time. “It’s no surprise as I write this, Madelyn is the valedictorian of our senior class with a GPA of 4.96.”
Disla told Dave Borgal, her adviser at the nonprofit mentoring organization Bottom Line, that she wanted to stay close to home for college, so he steered her to places like Boston University and Boston College. She surprised him by picking Dartmouth, the Ivy League outpost in Hanover, New Hampshire, 125 miles north of Boston.
The transition in 2007 from Charlestown High to Dartmouth, one of the top-ranked universities in the country, was tough. She felt out of place and was thrown by the pace of the academics. She had panic attacks and suffered bouts of depression. But Disla, the first person in her family to attend a US college, made friends among students in the Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies department. She joined the Dartmouth chapter of the Latina sorority Sigma Lambda Upsilon. She majored in romance studies, thinking she might work as a translator or maybe go to law school. Maybe even get a PhD.
Dartmouth offered Disla a hefty financial aid package, she said. The rest was covered by the Janey Scholars Program, which helps low-income students with all the additional hidden costs of college. Janey Scholars paid Disla’s expenses to study abroad in Europe one semester and, at graduation, covered the $15,000 in additional school loans she had taken out. But the safety net that had helped propel her in high school and college evaporated after Dartmouth. For the first time, she was navigating personal crises — including life as a new mother — on her own.
Disla said she tapped Dartmouth’s career resources and even won a few job interviews through Dartmouth connections. None of the jobs materialized. Soon, she was overwhelmed by everything in her life. During her senior year at Dartmouth, she had married a childhood boyfriend, but he was back in the Dominican Republic, unable to get approval from immigration authorities to live in the United States. She visited him the summer after she graduated and learned in September that she was pregnant. A few months after that, she was homeless, and little Emir was born while she had no permanent address.
People entering the workforce in the years immediately following the Great Recession faced particularly stark economic realities — even if, like Disla, they had overcome massive hurdles to graduate first in their high school class and gone on to earn an Ivy League degree. Of the valedictorians the Globe interviewed, some who graduated from college were able to land good jobs and move up the economic ladder, jumping rungs in ways their parents never did. Many others took a long time to launch, if they ever launched at all. Disla was one of four Boston valedictorians who said they experienced homelessness after leaving high school.
Students from school districts outside Boston interviewed by the Globe also reported being buffeted by the recession. But their advantages — greater financial means, college-educated parents who better understood the game — put them in a better position to weather the storm.
Homelessness happened to Disla not in one dramatic swoop, but in a series of mini-catastrophes that began after she left Dartmouth.
She assumed her Dartmouth degree would help in the job market, though she recognized that she would need more than a romance studies degree to be a compelling candidate. So she stayed on campus after graduation, borrowing money to participate in an intensive summer business program for liberal arts majors at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. She applied for jobs as a business analyst and online marketing analyst, and for other corporate positions. But she found no takers.
Her father, Franklin Disla, said he was proud of how well she did in school. He was surprised, though, at how much she struggled afterward. “I thought she’d have better opportunities,” he said.
Instead, she landed a pair of low-paying jobs — one starting at $12 an hour for 15 hours a week at a temp agency. She worked in her father’s immigration tax services office on Saturdays.
Altogether she made barely $20,000 a year. She spent the days job searching and the nights couch surfing, alternating between her father’s and grandmother’s homes. At her grandmother’s place, a cousin was now living in Disla’s old room. In her father’s tight three-bedroom home, he and his wife were raising their children.
Franklin Disla felt helpless. He had no room for his eldest daughter and didn’t have the money to get a bigger place or to help her get her own.
“I tried my best,” he said, “but at the same time, I had no income to help her.”
His daughter, meanwhile, was sinking deeper into depression, drifting toward hopelessness, and praying for her own place. It took all she had to get out of bed some days.
“I couldn’t do anything else,’’ Madelyn Disla said. “I couldn’t look for a job and worry about where I was going to live” at the same time.
By March 2012, with a child on the way, the St. Ambrose shelter felt like the best of her bad options. Disla’s husband was still in the Dominican Republic. She had applied for him to join her in the United States, but immigration authorities rejected her application and called the marriage a sham, she said. Disla began a furious letter-writing campaign to appeal the case. Her attempts to get him to the United States would consume her, becoming a major source of frustration and stress.
For six months, she lived in the shelter. She became close friends with Awilda Cabrera, a 27-year-old mother of two. They shared space on the third floor, two Latinas bound by their plight. Cabrera, who had been there for two years when Disla arrived, said she witnessed Disla struggle with sadness and depression.
“Sometimes she felt like the world was falling,’’ Cabrera recalled. “It surprised me to see someone that educated … in a shelter.”
Beyond her relatives, who were supportive, Disla didn’t tell many people of her circumstances. She didn’t want to bother anyone. Having Emir in June 2012 brought some sunshine into her life. She loved “holding him, feeding, and cradling him to sleep,” she said. After she gave birth, Disla called Deborah Denhart, her old mentor from her college years. Denhart runs the Janey Scholars Program and had assisted Disla throughout college. They had checked in once each month after Disla received her small stipend from the program. Denhart said she wished she had asked more probing questions of Disla at the time, and wished she had known more about her personal struggles. She did not know that Disla had been despondent at various points in college.
“I’ve told Madelyn that I feel like I let her down,’’ Denhart said. “And I learned so much from her about how to better support our students.”
Now, on the phone together again, Disla told Denhart that she needed to get little Emir into an affordable day-care program so she could concentrate on finding work. Denhart connected her to Horizons for Homeless Children, a local nonprofit. Disla’s life began to turn around. She finally found an apartment, a two-bedroom in Hyde Park, in the fall of 2012 through a city subsidized-housing program. Her father went with her to pick out donated furniture. She got a voucher from the shelter to buy a new crib and other items.
“It wasn’t fancy or perfect, but it was a comfortable, safe space for my son and me,’’ she said. “It was a happy moment.”
Disla also found a full-time job as a bilingual case manager and, later, an intake specialist at an elderly-services organization. In 2015, she got a job as a program coordinator at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, where she currently helps people with disabilities live independent lives. She loves the work.
Her husband in the Dominican Republic got the OK to come to Boston in 2014, but their young marriage did not last. She now lives with her boyfriend and their children in a condo on the South Shore. She is considering going to graduate school or law school and is preparing to take the LSAT. But she also has to consider the cost. Maybe she’ll do it when Emir is older.
Everything she’s been through has made her stronger and more independent — slowly, Disla said. She feels grateful for the support and guidance she did receive along the way, even if her unlikely journey sometimes surprised others. The people around her always knew she was destined for something more.
Once, in her subsidized Hyde Park apartment, a maintenance man came to fix the cracked flooring. He noticed her diploma mounted on the wall.
“You graduated from Dartmouth?’’ he said. “What are you doing here?
Cristela Guerra of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan Irons can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @MeghanIrons. Malcolm Gay can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay. Follow Eric Moskowitz on Twitter @elmoskowitz.