Education (and Lady Gaga) helped her pave her path forward. Now she wants to give others the same opportunity.

Makaila Cerrone, who recently graduated with degrees in political science and psychology, will start at MissionSafe, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, in August to work to prepare Black and Hispanic children for high school and college. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

My mama told me when I was young, we are all born superstars”

Those words are more than just lyrics to Lady Gaga’s hit song about self-acceptance, Born This Way. They serve as the soundtrack to Makaila Cerrone’s life.

Cerrone, who overcame hardships early in life that served as her personal rocket fuel to help others succeed, chose the song as her anthem. Through a Northeastern Massachusetts Promise Fellowship that starts in August, she will be working with Black and Hispanic youngsters at the Boston-based non-profit MissionSafe, preparing them for high school and college.

The fellowship allows her to continue to channel her altruism and, in keeping with the Lady G hit, live life on her own terms and stay true to who she is.

The 2020 political science and psychology graduate credits her mother’s determination to make a better life for herself as Cerrone’s inspiration to never settle for being average.

“I say what I think and follow my gut,” says Cerrone. “Maybe that will get me in trouble sometimes, but I was born this way.” Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Though her mother had only a high school diploma, “she taught me education was my way out of this life.” It was a life of constant financial struggles, immeasurable stress and the void of not having a father around. Rather than focus on what she didn’t have, Cerrone poured her energy into her studies in high school before it came time to advance her education.

She thought universities like Northeastern were out of the question and focused her applications on schools in her home state of Connecticut. Her teachers encouraged her to aim higher.

Cerrone visited Northeastern’s Boston campus in her junior year and was wowed by the co-op program, but she couldn’t imagine actually being accepted. After all, no one in her family had ever advanced to higher education before. But, with nothing to lose, she filled out the application form.

Then the unthinkable happened.

“One day I opened an email and it said I got accepted into Northeastern, and I remember bursting out crying,” Cerrone says. “It didn’t seem real at the time.”

Cerrone tempered her enthusiasm, believing that people in her financial circumstance don’t go to big-name universities.

That’s when lightning struck again.

“A few months later my financial aid package arrived, and that’s when it really sunk in—I’m going to Northeastern,” she says. 

Cerrone was a freshman in the summer of 2015. Her initial co-op wasn’t the right fit, so an adviser recommended City and Community Engagement, an office with deep ties to the mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods adjacent to the Boston campus.

There was one problem. Cerrone had lost out on a shot at a leadership position when she joined nuSERVES, the welcome week of activities for incoming first-years at what is now called the Northeastern University Alliance of Civically Engaged Students or NU|ACES.

The thought of being rejected a second time by that team made her question if this was the right situation for her. But she got the co-op, and it turned out to be more valuable than she could’ve imagined.

“I ended up getting the job, and I really had no idea how it would change my perspective on volunteering,” says the former Girl Scout. “It made me think hard about how I could best use my skills and experiences at Northeastern to help other people.”

The co-op taught her how to approach a community with a glass-half-full view, looking at its strengths, such as schools, churches, parks, and people, rather than focusing on its shortcomings.

The light bulb moment may have come as a surprise to Cerrone, but not to those who have worked alongside her.

“Makaila makes it a point to educate herself about things she doesn’t know, and is a really solid representative of someone who is engaged in her community,” says Mark Este, a non-profit management leader who serves as assistant director of Northeastern’s Civic Engagement Program.

Cerrone has also spent the last two years working with Fresh Truck, a Boston hunger relief non-profit created by another Northeastern student, Josh Trautwein. She can relate to what it’s like not knowing when or where her next meal was coming from.

“It has made me truly feel like a member of the Boston community rather than a fleeting college student,” she says. “Being able to work on this specific issue that’s so prevalent in the Boston community and so personal to me is incredibly rewarding.”

Cerrone is preparing for the August fellowship by reading Black authors’ works that she bought from the Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury, near campus.

One book in particular that resonated was “The Guide For White Women who Teach Black Boys” because “if I want to adequately serve those communities, I need to do the work. I can’t just go in expecting it all to fall together,” Cerrone says.

Although there is always more to learn, Cerrone’s five years of community service and advocacy work at Northeastern have equipped her with the tools she will need in the fellowship this fall.  That her time was well spent and rewarding is a testament to the variety of programs and opportunities at City and Community Engagement, she says.

As for her mom, who later attained an associate’s degree in night school, she’s back in school and on track to finish her bachelor’s in about two years. Like daughter, like mother, she followed her intuition and decided to advance her education after 30 years working in a nursing home.

A career move as brash and daring as her daughter’s decision that day to trust her instincts about a community service-focused Northeastern co-op.

So hold your head up, girl and you’ll go far. Listen to me when I say…”

“I’m very unapologetically myself,” says Cerrone. “I say what I think and follow my gut. Maybe that will get me in trouble sometimes, but I was born this way.” 

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