Gwendolyn Primous on Commencement Day 2013

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Former High School Dropout is Now a Pacific Grad-and Building a 'Dome of Hope' to Help Others

Katie SweeneyMay 13, 2013

Thirty-five years after she dropped out of high school, Gwendolyn Primous '13 found herself on the stage of the Alex G. Spanos Center on May 4, accepting her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of the Pacific.

It was a place she never imagined she'd be. To get there, Primous, 50, had to overcome poverty, homelessness and even a minor stroke.

Despite those obstacles, she not only graduated, but she was recently named the 2013 recipient of the Harold S. Jacoby Award, which honors a student from the College for exceptional community service and academic excellence.

Her mission now: Use her Pacific education to go back to her native southeast Stockton-and help lift others out of the crippling cycle of poverty.

"I know what my purpose in life is, and that's to help my neighborhood," Primous says. "My Pacific education has given me an incredible foundation to do that. I want to use everything I've learned to help other people move forward."

A Long and Winding Path to Pacific

The youngest of 14 children, Primous grew up poor on the southeast side of Stockton. Her mother worked as a maid; her father worked in the agricultural fields. She dropped out of high school at age 15, shortly after her father died.

"I didn't know which way to go or what to do," she recalls. "But dropping out was a major mistake."

She earned her GED a year later and eventually got a job as a records clerk with the Stockton Police Department. Then, in 1997, her mother suffered a debilitating stroke. Primous gave up her job-and her house-to become her full-time caregiver for the next 11 years.

In 2008, her mother died, and once again, Primous fell on hard times, often living out of her car. Still, she enrolled at San Joaquin Delta College, determined to fulfill a vow she had made to her dying mother: that she would complete her associate's degree.

At Delta, she signed up for a Black History class, thinking it would be "an easy class." Instead, she soon realized she hardly knew anything about black history. She found herself hungry to learn and began taking sociology classes, too.

"I had gone there to complete the vow I made to my mother, but it quickly shifted to something else," she says. "I wanted to be there."

A sociology teacher at Delta urged her to apply to Pacific, and a Pacific admissions officer mapped out the courses she needed to transfer. To her amazement, she was accepted into Pacific for the Fall 2011 semester.

What's more, she estimates that Pacific covered approximately 85 percent of her college costs, including housing, with grants and scholarships.

"I took out some loans, but they weren't large loans," she says. "The people in Financial Aid helped me so much. I was just completely blown away."

Washington Semester Leads to a New Vision

In her two years at Pacific, Primous has excelled. In addition to the Jacoby Award, she's a recent inductee into Alpha Kappa Delta, the International Sociology Honors Society. She's also a member of Sigma Alpha Pi, the National Society of Leadership and Success.

It was hard work-really hard. Schoolwork didn't come naturally to her. But she refused to give up.

"Gwen was so determined to get this education," says Alison Hope Alkon, Ph.D., co-chair of Sociology at Pacific and Primous' faculty advisor. "She came to class full of energy, ready to embrace the day's lesson and make it her own by relating the course material to her life experiences. She's unbelievably enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm is really contagious."

This past fall, Primous, who majored in Sociology and minored in Ethnic Studies, participated in Pacific's Washington Semester Program at American University. There, she took classes around the theme of "Transforming Communities" and interned as a community advocate with LIFT-DC, a nonprofit organization that connects residents with employment, housing and social services.

While in Washington, Primous also got a chance to meet and dine with one of her idols: sociologist and Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, Ph.D., well known for his work on urban poverty.

Although LIFT offered her a job after graduation, she politely turned it down. She flew home to Stockton, brimming with new ideas and a new vision-for building her own nonprofit, The Dome of Hope.

Building The Dome of Hope

Primous had already been operating The Dome of Hope informally, hosting community Thanksgiving dinners and operating a mobile tutoring service for children in south Stockton.

Armed with her new knowledge from Washington, she's now establishing The Dome of Hope as a formal nonprofit with a two-pronged mission: education and community development.

Recently, she was able to secure the use of a building owned by the County Board of Education, where The Dome of Hope plans to offer GED preparatory classes, literacy and job training, job placement assistance and referrals to social services. She's also working on bringing new businesses to the neighborhood to create much-needed jobs.

She isn't working alone, either. In addition to three family members, Primous has garnered help from a new group of people: Pacific students. Already, she's assembled a committee of 30 Pacific students and recent graduates-from across the university-to build The Dome of Hope. Several Pacific students also serve as tutors in the mobile program.

"I want Dome of Hope to come from Pacific students-a chance for Pacific students to get involved in the community and make a difference," she explains.

Alkon says Primous has inspired many of her fellow students. "She's certainly not the only student from south Stockton here," she notes. "But she's really exemplified what a Pacific education can do for someone, and what someone like Gwen can do for the community of Pacific."

'Education is the Foundation for Everything'

On March 28, Primous faced one more hurdle on her path to her Pacific graduation: she suffered a minor stroke.

Doctors told her to take three weeks off from school. She balked. She had come this far; she was going to finish. After five days off, she was back in class. She's now recovered, and on May 4, she was crossing that stage on Commencement Day.

She's grateful for so much: for her Pacific education, for the faculty and staff who supported her every step of the way, and for her fellow students, who accepted her with open arms.

"When I came to Pacific, I thought, 'I'm older, I'm black, and I'm overweight-that's all my strikes against me!'" she says. "But it wasn't like that. People here have bent over backwards to help me. They wanted me to succeed. We're family here.

"I really believe that the renewing of the mind can change and shift a lot of things. Education is the foundation for everything," she adds. "Now, I'm right at the threshold of a new life, and I'm making it my mission to pay it forward."