Days after burying her teen son, mom went back to class. Now she has a college degree

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Sirena Harrell was in her second semester at Miami Dade College when she lost her son to a hail of bullets.

Fifteen-year-old Isaiah “Zay” Solomon had been attending the wake for his teenage cousin, also a victim of gun violence, in West Little River when he got caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. His killer has never been found, and his mom has never been the same.

Harrell, 34, went back to school just days after burying Isaiah. She remembered how much she stressed the importance of education to her son and 8-year-old daughter, so she trudged head on in spite of emotional breakdowns during class periods and “tough days.”

“I would be sitting in class and I would bust out crying and I would have to excuse myself, go to the restroom wash my face and come back and continue my studies,” Harrell said. “I would still get up everyday because I still have my daughter that I have to live for.”

On Saturday, Harrell’s family and friends cheered as her name was called out and she walked on stage inside the University of Miami Wasco Center in Coral Gables, a newly pronounced graduate with a 3.73 GPA and aspirations of becoming a college professor. Harrell’s custom-decorated graduation cap featured a photo of Isaiah and her message to the world” “Even in grief…I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Harrell received her associate’s degree in English Education and plans to pursue her bachelor’s degree at Miami Dade College before moving out of Florida to pursue a job as a teacher.

It was just after midnight on Aug. 27, 2016 in Northwest Miami-Dade County when gunfire interrupted mourning and begot more sadness. A shooter, or shooters, pulled up in a car outside a home in the 1900 block of Northwest 83rd Terrace and fired bullets at family and friends gathering to remember 19-year-old Devonair “Deb” Blake, shot to death two weeks prior.

Six people were shot, two fatally. Harrell remembered sending Isaiah off to his cousin’s wake after he pleaded that he needed to show his support. She didn’t expect to lose him, too. Tafari “Fari” West, 22, also died in the shooting that sparked Harrell’s activism in her community to prevent gun violence and encourage her son’s killer to come forward.

“I love/loved him more than every breath in me, I would move the world for him if he needed, I would have given my life in order for him to keep living,” Harrell wrote on Facebook following the shooting.

Harrell buried Isaiah on Sept. 3. It was a Saturday, she recalls. By the following Monday or Tuesday, she returned to her routine of dropping her daughter off at school and then dragging herself to class.

“At that very moment, she felt her life was being tested,” wrote Allison Horton, public information coordinator at MDC, in an email to the Miami Herald. “While many loved ones thought she was being unwise, irrational, and crazy, Sirena knew in her spirit that if she had put her studies on hold, the promise of achieving a college education that she had made to both of her children would have been in vain.”

Taking classes with dual-enrollment high schoolers and others barely old enough to drink was difficult for Harrell, whose son would have graduated from high school next year.

“Sometimes I would see a young male in there who may remind me of him,” she said. “It was tough.”

Typically the oldest student in her classes, she sometimes felt like an “oddball,” but she never gave up on her mission. She worked part-time at the college’s financial aid office to fund her studies.

“Honestly I haven’t even processed it. I’m still just like on cloud nine,” she said of graduating. “To me, it’s like I did it because I had to do it. To other people, it seems like something great but to me it’s like I did it because I had to do it.”

“I always preached the importance of education to my kids and I just wanted to lead by example.”


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