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Long journey

Two students leave Mizzou with well-earned degrees and a family in hand

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  • Story by Lisa Bruce
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: May 16, 2008
Adair family

Marcus and Nicolle Adair reach the end of a winding path as they both graduate from Mizzou this spring. Along with children Marcus, Jr., Nyah and Neela, they'll be moving to Rochester, Minn., where Marcus earned acceptance into the Mayo Medical School.

Nicolle and Marcus Adair talk like they work — in tandem. Both have been going to school and working on-and-off for the past 8 years. They may not have taken the traditional journey to college degrees, but both graduate May 17 from the College of Arts and Science: Marcus with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with honors, Nicolle with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in communication, black studies and social work.

A new journey awaits. In the fall, Marcus starts medical school at the famed Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn.

Taking the long way

The couple, married since 2003, has taken a circuitous route to graduation. Both are the first generation in their families to go to college, and both have taken three attempts to finish.

Nicolle was very involved in extracurricular activities in high school in St. Louis. When she came to Mizzou, she had a hard time balancing academics with her involvement. She started and stopped college twice. Nicolle laughs when she talks about recently sending Associate Dean Ted Tarkow a note thanking him for telling her to come back to college when she was serious.

Marcus arrived at Mizzou in 2000 with a ’91 Cavalier and no idea what college entailed. He worked nights as a janitor and studied for a few months, took the ACT in July and started school in August.

During the summer of 2000, Marcus and Nicolle met through family members and became good friends. Marcus’ car was towed, he lost his place to live, and his mom was going through a divorce. It was an overwhelming experience. While Marcus struggled, Nicolle was his “saving grace,” he says.

In the meantime, Nicolle had opted out of school for a second time and worked full-time. Marcus decided to return to St. Louis to help his mother, and Nicolle returned, too. The two started dating seriously.

“We made a formidable team,” Nicolle says. “We may not have had direction, but we are very hardworking. If we were one person, we’d be the perfect person.”

A co-worker of Nicolle’s took the young couple under her wing and even co-signed for a car loan. The two came back to Columbia in 2001 with a big payment on an SUV and plans to return to school. Nicolle worked at Missouri Girls Town. Marcus got re-admitted to Mizzou, but he didn’t even register for classes because they could barely stay above water financially.

The turning point

When Nicolle was six months pregnant with Nyah, the couple’s first daughter, Marcus had a seizure. Marcus’ mother, aunt and uncle drove to Columbia in the middle of the night. Doctors never determined the cause of the seizure, although they said it could be stress-induced because of the long hours he worked as a mover. When Marcus’ mother found out that night at the ER that Nicolle was pregnant, she insisted the pair return to St. Louis. She offered them a place to live and an opportunity to save money.

The two spent about two hours every day on the road commuting to work — Marcus to a hospital, Nicolle to a daycare where Marcus took a second job cleaning in the evenings. Nicolle waited with Nyah while Marcus worked. They left home at 6:45 a.m. and returned after 9 p.m. each night.

‘We made a formidable team. We may not have had direction, but we were very hardworking.’

The SUV payment continued to sap their financial resources, and they weren't sure how long they could keep juggling. They tried to find the woman who’d co-signed their loan so they could refinance. Sadly, they discovered that she had died.

With the sad news came an unexpected blessing: Their friend had insisted they get asset insurance. The policy paid off the albatross auto, and some of the Adairs’ payments were returned with interest. In one fell swoop they had no car payment and the money to move back to Columbia.

Then Nicolle got a call from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri. The agency had just received a big grant and offered her a job starting when the two planned to be back in Columbia.

Marcus enrolled in school full-time. Nicolle worked, and their family grew. Marcus, Jr. was born almost two years ago. Neela came along in March 2008. Nicolle, with only 12 hours left to complete, finished this semester along with Marcus.

Next step in the journey

The next step in the couple's journey has roots in Marcus' childhood. He used to accompany his mom to her job as a medical assistant at a free clinic in St. Louis. In the pre-HIPAA days, no one worried about confidentiality, and the workers at the clinic would take turns watching each other’s children. Some days the kids would shadow the doctors. Marcus met the first black physicians he’d ever known. Many of the patients were homeless, but the doctors treated everyone like they were family.

“Those guys were really looked up to, and they held up their end of the bargain, too,” Marcus says. Often the doctors offered a compassionate ear to the patients for more than physical ailments.

This early inspiration has led Marcus all the way to acceptance into one of the nation’s top medical schools. While Marcus attends Mayo, Nicolle plans to raise her children and find continued opportunities to work with people. She says if people read this story and look them up in 25 years, she has no doubt they will still be together.

“I wouldn’t go through this journey with anybody else,” she says.

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Reader feedback

  • That was a tremendous story, and thanks for printing it. I live in Chicago, and my daughter went to Mizzou.

  • I am pleasantly surprised with this article. How refreshing to read about two young African Americans who are making a difference despite the obstacles. It is a joy to read something positive about African Americans as opposed to the overwhelming negativity peppered throughout the media. This article is proof that we do not make it on our own, but in tandem with others we are capable of achieving all of our goals. I salute Marcus and Nicolle for being exemplary parents to their children, for not giving up, and for enduring the pains and strains of life. Mizzou, I applaud you for bringing to light a story of this caliber; in my eyes this is far more reaching than what any other type of news an institution of higher learning could print. Please pass on to the Adair Family my prayers and blessings upon all their endeavors.

  • As a former co-worker with Nicolle at Big Brothers Big Sisters along with my wife, I had the pleasure of meeting this couple, and we are blessed to know them. I remember the late nights going to the office and seeing Marcus there hitting the books and Nicolle there sometimes with the kids. Together they truly set an example for their children to follow and I am absolutely confident that we will hear about the success of this couple in the future.

  • I am encouraged to see the story of Marcus and Nicolle Adair. They must be a very hardworking couple to meet their challenges and gain success.  I know how hard it can be to continue to strive for educational success while balancing family responsibilities. Congratulations to Nicolle and Marcus!  What a great message of dedication to send to their children.

  • As an older female, full-time working, graduate student, Marcus and Nicolle’s story of perseverance is a tremendous story of encouragement! It sheds light on the reality many of us face as we try to reach our goals. For those of us who are first generation college students and who fund our own education, getting any degree can seem next to impossible! Thank you for sharing Marcus and Nicolle’s story for those of us who continue to struggle semester after semester to make our dreams come true.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012