Health director offers her story as inspiration for students

Peoples’ perspective

Cole County Health Director Marie Peoples, a Lincoln University graduate, told LU students Thursday morning how education and perseverance helped her reach personal and professional levels she’d been told she couldn’t reach.

Cole County Health Director Marie Peoples, a Lincoln University graduate, told LU students Thursday morning how education and perseverance helped her reach personal and professional levels she’d been told she couldn’t reach.

Marie Peoples has been Cole County’s Health director for almost 21⁄2 years.

She is a member of Jefferson City’s School Board.

She recently earned a doctorate in public health-epidemiology.

“A defining moment (of my life) that stands out to me was when I wrote in my 6th grade essay that I wanted to become an oceanologist,” Peoples told Lincoln University students at Thursday morning’s Honors Convocation, “and my teacher responded to me, in front of the class — that it was unlikely that I would go to college, and that I should be a secretary, because I was pretty and I had a good reading voice.”

Obviously, she noted, that teacher dropped the ball when it came to encouraging a student to try harder.

But, Peoples noted, her life to that point had not been easy.

“I was born into poverty. My mother was an unwed teenager and a high school dropout,” she recalled. “Being an unwed teenager with a child in the 1970s came with severe stigma.

“This stigma was intensified by the fact that my teenage, unwed mother was white — interracial relationships were not readily accepted in the Midwest and southern states that I grew up in.”

Still, she said, Peoples’ mother survived by working “multiple waitressing and minimum-wage factory jobs to care for my sister and me” — the main “employment options available to uneducated women.”

Her mother took pride in keeping her children clean and well-dressed in handmade clothes, and fed as well as possible using the government commodities provided to poor families in the late-1900s.

But, while that was the beginnings of Peoples’ understanding of “perseverance” in the world, she told the students there seemed to be more troubles than smooth spots.

“The next significant marker of my journey begins at the age of 15, when I became pregnant and continued the cycle of being an unwed mother,” she said.

She dropped out of school to care for her son.

“This was not uncommon in the neighborhoods I grew up in,” she explained. “Teenage girls got pregnant and teenage boys went to prison — or died.

“That is what poverty, gender and racial injustices perpetuate.”

She didn’t repeat that 6th grade teacher’s prediction. But, Peoples recalled, “I felt like I was losing any chance I had to be something, to be anything.

“A ‘statistic’ is what people said I was.”

She resolved to be something else, to “have a different future.”

And, with a GED in hand, at age 16 she applied to — and was accepted by — Lincoln University.

“I remember my first day on campus like it was yesterday,” Peoples said. “I felt nervous, out of place. I did not have a peer group, and I did not know anything about college expectations.

“Nobody in my immediate family had graduated from high school, let alone attended a college.”

But, thanks to supportive staff and teachers who “gave me a sense of belonging,” while demanding “accountability and hard work,” Peoples found inspiration for “possibilities beyond my imagination” and empowerment “to take control of my own life.”

She found support when her life was bumpy, but no free-passes when she didn’t work to her full potential.

She graduated in 1998, then earned master’s degrees in sociology and criminal justice, and in public health, from LU in 2000.

“Today, I stand before you as a woman who has surpassed all predictions,” Peoples told the students. “With the help of many, I have persevered. I hope that my journey can benefit each of you, as you craft your own life journey.”

Peoples noted the convocation is held each spring to recognize students successes and awards.

“I encourage you to embrace your failures, as well,” she said. “If you do not learn to accept failure with humility, you will never learn to win with humility. ...

“Learn from your failures, so that you can realign your compass, toward success.”

And, she added, be thankful for those in your life who have been supportive and helpful.

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