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Like Mother, Like Daughter 

Paula O'Neil, seated, and her daughter, Chantel Batuk, motivate each other to succeed academically as seniors in the School of Social Welfare. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)  

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 9, 2017) – It all started with a friendly little dare.

Paula O’Neil of Fultonville wanted her grown daughter Chantel to go to college. One thing stood in Chantel’s way: she didn’t have a GED.

Chantel Batuk had a good job training restaurant employees, but she wanted her weekends back. She told her mother, “If you do it, I’ll do it.”

Paula was taken aback. “I left school in 1980 when I was in the ninth grade,” said the mother of two. She thought it over. “As a mother you will do almost anything to help your kids move forward,” said Paula, who is now 52. Chantel is 31.

So even though the idea of returning to school scared her, Paula took the plunge. Mother and daughter signed up for GED classes at the HFM BOCES Office of Adult Literacy, Gloversville Literacy Zone in September 2012. Chantel finished quickly and enrolled at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (FMCC) in the spring. It was a longer road for Paula.

“I was in a severe car accident in January of 2013, tearing the tendons in the right side of my neck from the impact,” Paula said. “But I wanted Chantel to remain in college so I kept attending the GED program, crying my way through it because it was difficult to hold my head up.”

Paula had more than a dozen treatments and procedures during that time, but still passed the GED test in June 2013. That same month her son Dylan graduated from Fonda-Fultonville High School.

Now it was Dylan’s turn to up the ante. “I will not enroll in college with Chantel unless you enroll in classes, too,” he challenged his mom.

“I’ve never felt comfortable in school,” Paula said. “I thought I would go for one semester and get him enrolled and I would just quit.” Instead, Paula earned all A’s at FMCC, so she kept going.

Paula and Chantel graduated Phi Beta Kappa from FMCC. “I got to walk with both my kids and Chantel’s fiancé at the FMCC graduation,” Paula said.

And so began the journey that brought Paula and Chantel to the University at Albany. Mother and daughter applied to the School of Social Welfare program. At first, as a mom, Paula just wanted Chantel to get in. Chantel’s acceptance letter arrived. Then Paula started thinking, “I want to go, too!” A week letter, to her delight, her own acceptance letter arrived.

“The School of Social Welfare baccalaureate program is highly competitive, with only a small number of applicants admitted each year,” said Alyssa Lotmore, who handles BSW program admissions. “The fact that a mother and daughter were both accepted and will graduate together in May is really quite amazing.”

“I would not be here if not for my kids,” said Paula, as her eyes welled up with tears. “I have never felt capable.” That despite the fact that she ran her own cleaning business for 12 years. She gave up the business after the car accident, turning it over to Chantel.

Paula has a 3.91 overall GPA. Paula is treasurer and Chantel, secretary, of the Baccalaureate Social Welfare Association. “The School of Social Welfare is the perfect place for us,” Paula said. “We’ve been doing it most of our lives – helping other people.”

“We have roots at UAlbany now,” said Chantel, who has taken over her mom’s business clients on a part-time basis.

The story does not end there. While Chantel is moving out of state after graduation, Paula is applying to the Advanced Standing in MSW program, an accelerated program which is completed in one year instead of the traditional two.

“Who would have seen this coming?” said Paula. “It is surreal.”

Sarah Offenbach, assistant director of the Career Development office, has assisted Paula and Chantel is one of her Peer Career Advisors.

"It's difficult to capture in words the pride that I have for Chantel and Paula," Offenbach said. "Since I have known them, I have been touched by their humility and commitment to others. Their academic drive, determination to overcome obstacles, and their deep dedication to helping their community is unmatched. I can't wait to cheer for them at the SSW commencement as they cross another stage together. The world is a better place because Chantel and Paula are in it."

Paula believes it is never too late to go back to school.

“When I was coming here, I was terrified. To sit in a classroom of young people, I thought I would be the odd duck. Instead, the students here have been so welcoming. The students and faculty have made me feel supported,” she said.

Paula credits her husband and both her children for all their encouragement and support over the past four years. She is also grateful for the patience and support she received from the School of Social Welfare, the students and faculty at FMCC, the TRiO Student Support Services program, and the Gloversville Literacy Zone. In fact she has been asked to be the commencement speaker at the Literacy Zone’s commencement in August.

“I would like people who are middle-aged to think about coming back to school,” said Paula. “If I can do it, you can do it. And for you students, if you encourage your mom to go back to school, maybe she’ll do it.”

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