“The one thing about the three of us is that we want to do something to help humankind,” says urban sustainability major Deborah Alves about herself and the two women seated to her right during a recent interview. The other women are fellow Brooklyn College students, but Deborah did not meet them in one of her classes; Anisee and Abigail Alves-Willis are two of Deborah’s three daughters. Their smiles are broad as each looks to the other to answer how they plan to achieve their shared goal of bringing positive change to the world.

“I want to start a nonprofit organization in Trinidad, provide mental health counseling services for adults, but also children in their adolescent stage,” says Anisee, who will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology this May and plans to pursue a master’s in mental health counseling. She is eager to dispel some of the taboos that still surround mental illness in her mother’s home country. “People need to know that it is okay to be open about mental illness so that they can seek help.” She also wants to make sure that the services are there for those who do reach out. “I want to provide preventative care so that we can intervene early in a patient’s illness.”


On course to graduate in 2020, Abigail, who is majoring in health and nutrition sciences, but is looking to switch her major to chemistry, has plans to go into chemical engineering, specifically pharmaceuticals. “I want to create medicines that do minimal, and ultimately, no harm to the body,” she says. “Abigail may go to Trinidad to shadow an aunt, who is one in a line of traditional herbalists in our family,” Deborah adds.

It is clear her native country resonates deeply with Deborah Alves, who came here in 1990 because she was pursuing a better life. “We were a beekeeping family in Trinidad,” she says. “Last summer on a trip to Greece, I visited beekeepers and thought, ‘I want to be an urban beekeeper and set up a cooperative in Brooklyn.’ I can’t begin to tell you how vitally important encouraging and maintaining a healthy bee population is.” Deborah who is set to graduate in 2019, will be traveling to Greece this summer to more closely research how to build a cooperative, thanks to the Brooklyn College Rosen Fellowship.


As ingrained as Trinidad is in the lives of Deborah and her daughters, so is Brooklyn College: Anisee and Abigail both attended the school’s STAR (Science, Technology, and Research) Early College High School at Erasmus High School. Their mother began with an adult literacy program at Brooklyn College. After she earned her GED, she applied and was accepted to the BC Bound High School Equivalency to Degree program. “That was my beginning here, in 2014. But I transferred to BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College) because I could not do pre-Calculus,” says Deborah, laughing. She completed her foundation courses, including math, and returned to Brooklyn College with an associate degree in liberal arts. “When I first decided to try for a college degree, a few of my friends wondered why I didn’t just look for a decent paying job and leave it at that. But I wanted more.”


Like many other college students, all three work: Deborah as a college assistant at CUNY EDGE (Educate, Develop, Graduate, Empower) and a mentor with the Black and Latino Male Initiative; Anisee as a teaching artist at the Brooklyn College Community Partnership; and Abigail as a tutor for core math at the college’s Learning Center. She also works as a sales associate at a boutique in Soho, and models on the side.

With their schedules full to bursting, there is often little time for them to see each other, except in passing, even at home. “And now when they say to me, ‘mommy, I don’t have time to do the dishes or other housework, I’ve got homework,’ I get it,” says Deborah. Still, they do manage to meet for lunch and make time together off-campus to participate in J’ouvert—the annual spring carnival whose origins lay in Trinidad, but which is now celebrated widely throughout the Caribbean, and in September in Brooklyn. Deborah is known in Brooklyn for her handcrafted carnival costumes; her daughter Anisee also designs and helps with details such as the fancy feather work seen in the elaborate headdresses.


When it comes to pursuing her degree at a later stage in her life, Deborah’s daughters, including her eldest, Charnele, have been “very supportive and encouraging,” she says. And Anisee and Abigail share an understanding of the hard work it takes, and a vision of working locally and globally for the greater good. They also share her wry sense of humor. “When they were little, and used to ask me to do their schoolwork for them, I would say ‘you have to figure it out for yourself—I’m not going to be in the classroom taking the test for you.’ Now they turn it around and say the same thing to me. And they are right.”