"We were always stressing to our kids, you have to go to college so you won't struggle as much as we did. We're always setting goals for ourselves, so we're not complacent in where we're at. A degree was just one of those things we hadn't done yet." – Lisette Antonmarchi '23
Luis Antonmarchi calls himself "hard-headed." Lisette, his wife, prefers the word "determined" to describe them both.
"We set a goal, we stick to it," says Lisette.
"No matter what it takes," adds Luis.
That attitude has carried them a long way over the past 35 years, out of poverty in the Bronx and north to western Massachusetts, where they sought a better life for themselves and their three children, Luis, Eric and Teea.
"We're city kids," says Lisette. "We had children very young. Our drive has always been to work as much as we could. School was something we really didn't have time for since providing for our family was our top priority."
Over the years, even as they both progressed into satisfying careers, they talked about going to college but never could seem to find the right time. Finally, in 2018, as their children were finishing high school, they decided to act on that long deferred dream.
"It was really just a personal goal," says Lisette. "We were always stressing to our kids, you have to go to college so you won't struggle as much as we did. We're always setting goals for ourselves, so we're not complacent in where we're at. A degree was just one of those things we hadn't done yet."
And now they have.
On June 3, after five years as part-time students at Holyoke Community College, Luis and Lisette Antonmarchi will walk together across the Commencement stage at the MassMutual Center in Springfield to claim their associate's degrees. Luis, 55, a sociology major, will graduate with honors, Lisette, a liberal arts major, with high honors. Nothing, not raising children, nor working full time, nor a global pandemic, was going to stop them once they had started.
"Even though we've been together so long, we genuinely enjoy each other's company," says Luis. "Part of being together is holding each other accountable. She's smarter than me. There's no way I would have been as successful as I am without her."
Earlier this month, Luis and Lisette were inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa national honor society. On May 11, they gave a joint speech at a celebration for graduating students who belong to HCC Transitions programs, in their case New Directions for Adult Learners.
"We're fortunate that every step of this journey has been taken together," Luis said that night. "I remember our very first day of classes here. That feeling of excitement because we were finally doing this and at the same time that feeling of fear of the unknown."
The Antonmarchis got their start at Holyoke Community College through another transitions program, Transition to College and Careers, a free HCC college prep class.
That made all the difference. Neither one of them had attended school since the 1980s. Luis had dropped out in 11th grade to help his mother pay rent and raise his two younger brothers.
"It was either school or work, so it was no choice. Family comes first," says Luis. His father wasn't around. "The street called Dad. That's where he chose to be. I worked to make sure my brothers didn't follow him. It was important to me to set an example for them."
Lisette finished high school in a program for truant and pregnant teenage girls. She gave birth her senior year and graduated a month later.
"My father was around a little more often – when he wasn't in jail," says Lisette. "We grew up either running from him or all of us running from the law."
The two met as teenagers and have been together ever since.
"I say this all the time: we're street kids. Our dads were no good," says Luis. "We've worked hard to get everything we have, but we don't concentrate too much on the material stuff. For me, it's all about family. It's all about her. As long as it's us. As long as the family's ok. That's what's important."
In New York City, as they struggled to make ends meet, Luis worked "all kinds of jobs," he says, including stints at the World Trade Center as a security guard and in a Bloomingdale's warehouse.
Later, as their two boys were about to start grade school, they decided to move to Holyoke. Luis found work in a factory, then Home Depot. After a few years, he tested to become a police officer and joined the department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He eventually made detective, working for five years on loan to the FBI for its terrorism and western Massachusetts gang task forces. He now works in the Dean of Students office as the university's conduct and compliance investigator.
Meanwhile, Lisette developed an expertise in electronic medical records. She works for Commonwealth Care Alliance as an enterprise manager for clinical systems training.
They live in West Springfield in a house they purchased three years ago to accommodate their growing family, which includes four grandchildren with a fifth on the way.
After HCC, they intend to continue their studies at UMass through the University Without Walls program. Lisette plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in instructional design, Luis a bachelor's in social justice.
"We hope that with this graduation and continuing our education that we can continue to be an inspiration for our family," says Luis. "I hope that our grandchildren, when they see us walk at Commencement, that that becomes a moment they'll always remember and a motivation for them too as they begin their educational journeys."
STORY and PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Thumbnail) Luis and Lisette Antomarchi will graduate together Jund 3 from HCC. (Above) Luis and Lisette in 2018 during their first semester at HCC.