“I always had this story inside of me that I wanted to write about,” says Cipri. “I eased it in to many of my courses, and all my teachers responded to the story. They put up with my faults, and helped me become a writer. They let me know that I could do it.”
When Stamford, Conn., native Jennifer Cipri graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, she couldn't quite believe she was in a cap and gown, receiving a diploma from one of the region's top liberal arts colleges. Not that long ago, she had dropped out of Norwalk Community College to be with her dying mother.
"After my mother passed away, I wasn't thinking of going back to college," says Jennifer. "I just started writing about her. Then I showed my writing to an old high school teacher, and she gave it to a guidance counselor, who contacted Sarah Lawrence."
Soon after, Jennifer received a call from the college's Center for Continuing Education, asking her to consider the program, which addresses the needs of adult learners who want to obtain an undergraduate degree.
Her first novel—a 120,000-word manuscript—is a loosely autobiographical, coming-of-age novel about an Italian street tough named Remo, who pursues his passion to become an artist, and his daughter, who never got to know him before he died. The daughter then embarks on the quest to write his life's story. It is set in a predominantly black and Italian neighborhood—quite similar to the one Jennifer grew up in.
"I always had this story inside of me that I wanted to write," says Jennifer. "I eased it in to many of my courses, and all my teachers responded to the story. They put up with my faults and helped me become a writer. They let me know that I could do it."
Among her advisors was Shirley Kaplan, a member of Sarah Lawrence's theatre faculty.
"Jennifer is an original writer with original stories to tell," says Kaplan. "For Jennifer, it was a question of getting the courage to complete the work she had started. She really did use Sarah Lawrence in the best possible way."
Getting to Sarah Lawrence, however, was not easy for her. Jennifer suffered from severe depression and anxiety, and ended up graduating from an alternative high school in the city. After scoring poorly on the SAT exams, she enrolled in Norwalk Community College while also working at a local grocery store.
"In high school, I was having problems with being able to focus, and I wasn't sure where college was going to take me," she says. "All I knew was that I loved writing and learning."
Jennifer wasn't certain she could cut it at Sarah Lawrence, but she was intrigued by the school's small classes and personalized instruction. She took a couple of noncredit courses and then decided to enter the CCE program.
"It was hard in many ways," says Jennifer. "I didn't have the educational background that many of the others had. I wasn't up to par with my vocabulary, and I hadn't read a lot of literature. But I felt that the people I met there were warm and encouraging. And they made me believe I could do it."
Jennifer thrived in Sarah Lawrence's seminar-and-conference system, in which students take seminar classes with no more than 15 students, then meet biweekly with the professor to work on an independent project related to the subject that's of particular interest to the student.
"The conference is a true blessing," says Jennifer. "You get to explore who you are in a setting where you are one-on-one with someone who wants to know what your ideas are. That's rare in life, to have someone genuinely interested, who wants to explore your take on the world."
While Jennifer was somewhat older than the students in her classes, she felt at home with them.
"They were real open and real friendly," says Jennifer. "I loved the way they dressed and interacted. I'd punch out of work at the Stamford library, drive to school, and there was my little haven. The students were a big part of it."
"I feel like I've been enriched," Jennifer admits, "and whatever comes in life, I'll always have that. I know I'm always going to write, even if it's just letters or a journal. It's definitely who I am."
She left Sarah Lawrence a changed woman.
"I know myself better as a person, and I'm more aware of injustice in the world," she says. "I'm more aware of that part of me that wants to make changes in the world. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, but I have faith that I will make a difference."