Hulla the survivor - St Thomas ‘obeah’ family gets its first university graduate
Having dropped out of four colleges due to financial difficulties, Hulla Cooper is now celebrating as the first member of her immediate family to have graduated from university.
Just two weeks from her 40th birthday, Cooper, in an interview with The Sunday Gleaner, said her story is one of overcoming hardship and proves that if you refuse to give up, your dreams can be achieved.
"It's the drive I had. For me it's about overcoming, I lacked self-confidence. I was a laid-back person who gave up easily, so to achieve a university degree is a major stepping stone for me.
"I would like to share my experiences with others who may plan to quit or who have already quit, because I quit like a thousand times," said Cooper who grew up in Airy Castle in St Thomas, with her mother and 11 siblings.
She said her mother attended a revivalist church and was heavily involved the Afro-Jamaican religion Kumina, which caused her family to be branded as obeah (evil) workers.
Cooper said she was teased and ridiculed because of the obeah label, to the point where she started to hate being a part of her family. At age 11, she decided she had enough and ran away from home.
"I didn't know where I was going but I knew I ended up in Spanish Town, St Catherine. I was staying at a lady's house, and like a week after police came with my mommy and my brothers. I don't know how they found out where I was but my mother threatened to send me to a reformatory," said Cooper.
When she returned to St Thomas, she was sent to live with her father and stepmother and continued her education at Seaforth High School, until she got pregnant at age 16.
"I did three subjects and I was successful, but I was unable to get a job because of my age, and I started washing clothes for people in the community. I eventually got a job at a garment factory in Yallahs, but six months after the factory closed down and I was unemployed again for a very long time," added Cooper.
She eventually found a job in a bar, where she met the man who would become her husband. He encouraged her to go back to school.
Cooper started attended evening classes at the Heart Trust/NTA facility in Rockfort in the Corporate Area, doing computer studies. Unsure of what career path to take, she enrolled at the College of Agriculture, Science & Education, hoping to study to become a teacher, but dropped out because of financial difficulties.
This cycle continued with three more colleges, during which time she got pregnant with her second child.
She eventually settled at The University of the West Indies (UWI) but her struggle continued.
"During my first semester my closest sister died. I was devastated and failed one course, especially since my family did not have the money to bury her. In the second semester of my third year another sister died and I failed another course.
"In my fourth year I got pregnant. this was another blow as the Students' Loan Bureau did not renew my loan and I had to sit out that year. A few months later, my closest aunt died and this sent me into depression," said Cooper, as she chronicled her challenges.
"In the fifth year, I borrowed the fee from the Jamaica Teachers' Association and tried to finish up, but in the second semester of that year my second daughter was hospitalised four weeks before GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test) to remove her appendix.
"Then during my final course, my oldest daughter fell from a cliff about 120 feet high into the sea behind our house while I was doing an assignment. At that time both of us ended up in the hospital," added Cooper.
After five years at UWI, Cooper graduated last November with a degree in education, and now teaches at an early childhood institution in St Thomas.
"I am the first of five generations in my family to have attained this level of education and have a profession. Everyone was so excited that it took a 32-seater bus and a car to carry all my friends and family to graduation.
"All the children were allowed inside a tent to witness this history. After the ceremony I made sure all of them took pictures in the gown as I pronounced them future university graduates. As I relived the struggles and hardships I went through, I also smiled as I remembered my mom's face in the gown saying, 'a my dauta dis enuh'," shared Cooper.