Metro

Urban College of Boston holds 18th graduation

After nearly closing, the small Boston college is stronger and still helping nontraditional students realize big dreams

Nancy Daniel (right), Urban College’s dean of academic affairs, applauded as graduate Cecelia Young composed herself while accepting the Jill Alexander Award for Excellence at commencement Sunday.
PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF
Nancy Daniel (right), Urban College’s dean of academic affairs, applauded as graduate Cecelia Young composed herself while accepting the Jill Alexander Award for Excellence at commencement Sunday.

This was a college graduation ceremony 15 years in the making for Noemi Pineda.

She walked into the Urban College of Boston’s Tremont Street offices in 1998 with plans to earn a certification in early childhood education. In the intervening years, she got married, got divorced, had two children, lost two siblings, and switched careers.

Still, Pineda, now a transportation manager for the MBTA, kept coming to class Tuesday nights after work, rallied by the teachers who urged her to take at least one course every year.

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On Sunday afternoon, she graduated with an associate’s degree in general studies.

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“They don’t allow you to give up,” said Pineda about the faculty at Urban College “This has been my home for 15 years.”

Pineda was one of more than 105 students, most of them women, all of them from low-income backgrounds, who received an associate’s degree or certificate of achievement from Urban College during an emotional ceremony at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

It marked the independent college’s 18th annual commencement ceremony and one that was far from guaranteed a year ago when Urban College was on the brink of closing.

The college has survived its share of close calls, sharp disappointments, and hard-won victories, all of which mirror the experiences of many of the students it serves.

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Last year, the college warned its students that it would have to cancel classes for the fall semester because of financial shortfalls. A planned merger with Endicott College, a private four-year institution in Beverly, also fell through. And the New England Association of School and Colleges, the accrediting agency, questioned Urban College’s long-term viability.

Urban College didn’t have an endowment and always operated on a slender margin. It took a significant financial hit when Congress chose not to reauthorize its $700,000 subsidy in 2011, cutting the college’s $2.5 million budget by more than 25 percent.

Action for Boston Community Development Inc., also know as ABCD, which had helped open the Urban College in 1993, chipped in money to keep the school afloat. But last summer, the college was running a deficit of $250,000.

Michael Taylor, the school’s president, said Urban College has been able get back on track in recent months and is on a probational accreditation status. Officials with the accrediting agency will visit the school next spring and determine later that year whether to take the school off probation.

The school is enrolling more students, which is bringing in additional money through federal student grant funding, school officials said.

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Urban College had registered 665 students this spring, a 30 percent increase from last fall, Taylor said.

Urban College is also offering classes at more locations, including Roxbury and Lawrence, and has secured several grants, including $200,000 from the Lloyd G. Balfour Foundation that has helped bridge its funding gap. Additionally, Action for Boston Community Development forgave a $672,000 loan to the school, Taylor said.

Taylor expects Urban College to end this school year with a $200,000 surplus, which will be used to cement its future, he said.

“We’ll be able to virtually flip it in one year,” Taylor said.

The college, whose graduating class included women who were homeless, Chinese and Hispanic immigrants, and older students, is more financially stable than it has been in recent years, said John J. Drew, the head of ABCD and one of the founding members of the school.

This past year tested Urban College, Drew during the commencement to a theater filled with graduates, their families, friends, and a few crying infants.

But, he said, “We passed. . . . The Urban College of Boston is here to stay.”

In a city packed with prestigious colleges and universities, Urban College fills a need in Boston, Drew said. Its graduates reflect the diversity of the city and its workers, he said.

“It should be a great point of pride with the city, that this institution has been able to take root,” Drew said.

The agency’s decision to forgive its loan to Urban College was pragmatic, he said.

“If the college went out of business, how would we collect money?” he said.

As part of the school’s restructuring, Drew is stepping down from the board of trustees to ensure that the school’s governing body is more independent from the antipoverty agency. ABCD will continue to rent space to the school, provide it smaller grants, and send its Head Start workers for further education at Urban College, Drew said.

“We’ll continue to have a relationship,” Drew said. “But it’s now the child standing on their feet.”

That’s how some of the students said they felt after graduating from Urban College.

“Attending Urban College was a necessity,” said Cecelia Young, who was facing homelessness when she decided to enroll in classes. She graduated Sunday with an associate’s degree in human services.

Young’s friend Krystle McClure, 26, said attending classes with students who were facing similar challenges helped her succeed.

McClure turned to Urban College while she and her daughter were living in a Revere shelter, where she saw a flier for the school. While taking classes she got a job as a school early intervention specialist and moved her family to a home in Roxbury.

McClure said she and other single mothers would meet in the park and do their homework while their children played.

“It was a support system,” McClure said. “It was an amazing bond.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.