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Up from Welfare, Bronx Woman Basks in Academic Limelight

June 1, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Elyse Sanchez tried on her new self-esteem Wednesday and found that it fit just right.

″I’ve finally done something in my life 3/8″ the 35-year-old mother of four said as her children clung to her long black gown.

Seventeen years after she dropped out of college and four years after her husband left her and she went on welfare, Elyse T. Sanchez was a college graduate - and something of a celebrity.

At her graduation from Lehman College in the Bronx, she was singled out twice by college officials for her outstanding achievements, which included the highest academic honors - summa cum laude - and a straight-A average.

She won the Lehman College Retirees Scholarship, the Gertrude B. Wertenbaker Scholarship and the Marjorie Anderson Memorial Award. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Her picture was on the front page of the New York Post, which called her a ″feisty welfare mom.″ There were offers to appear on morning network news programs.

And after commencement ceremonies, while other graduates had their pictures taken by proud mothers and fathers, Ms. Sanchez’s elated children watched as their mother had her picture taken by legions of newspaper photographers and television cameramen.

She was asked what it takes for someone to go from the depths of the welfare system to the heights of academic excellence in a few short years. She answered without hesitation.

″Four children pushing you,″ she said. Her children, ages 8 to 17, were pulling at this point. ″C’mon, Mom, it’s time for lunch,″ they said. But Ms. Sanchez wasn’t through talking.

″When Walt Disney won the Academy Award for ‘Snow White,’ I think he got one big Oscar and seven little ones for the dwarfs,″ she said. ″I feel like I should have four little diplomas for the children.″

She said the children did many of the household chores while she went to school and studied.

″I wanted to graduate and tell my oldest daughter she’s not the mother anymore,″ she said.

Four years ago, Ms. Sanchez said, her life had hit bottom. She and her husband had moved from Jersey City, N.J., to the Bronx, so he could work for New York City’s Social Services Department - the distributors of welfare. They found an apartment in a neighborhood she describes as rough and crime-ridden.

She had quit her job as an insurance claims adjuster a few years before, and after her son, Damian, was diagnosed as having a learning disability, she decided against going back to work. And then her husband left her, she said.

At that point, Ms. Sanchez said, she realized she had to go onto public assistance - an experience she is still bitter about. ″It’s a system that’s designed to keep you down,″ she said. ″It’s not designed to get you off; it’s designed to keep you on.″

After slightly more than a year on welfare, she decided to try going back to school. Her last attempt, at Hunter College when she was 17, had been a failure, but she needed to do something to get over ″a sense that I wasn’t worth anything.″

Lehman College, which is part of the City University of New York, accepted her into its Adult Degree Program. It was, she said, ″paradise.″ She declared a double major of English literature and humanities, and she thrived.

The program offered work at the college, and she continued to receive welfare payments as well.

Now Ms. Sanchez is heading to the University of Iowa, where she’s received a fellowship to work toward a Ph.D. in English literature. She’ll get a $17,000 annual stipend plus tuition, and hopes to work part-time as an editor or secretary.

Her goal is a teaching position at a ″nontraditional″ college.

″I decided on Iowa because I think it will be best for the whole family,″ she said. ″I’m looking forward to a sense of peace ... and goofy stuff like camping and seeing my kids ride bicycles and stuff like that.″

In the meantime, she was asked, does she have any plans? She thought a minute. ″The laundry,″ she said.

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