QUEENS — For Jemarley McFarlane, the most difficult part of his childhood was watching his mother’s struggles.
His father left when Jemarley was 8 years old. His mother Yvonne raised him and his sister Tiffany, now 16, by herself.
“She sacrificed a lot for our family,” said Jemarley, 22, who grew up in Jamaica, Queens.
Today, Jemarley is a senior at the prestigious Colby College in Maine and is preparing for a yearlong teaching fellowship in South Korea — part of a Fulbright U.S. student fellowship he recently won.
He credits his mother, an immigrant from Jamaica, with his success.
“She was an honor student in high school when she came to the United States, but was unable to attend college,” he said.
“But she built different values in me and one of those values was gaining quality education.”
Yvonne McFarlane, 48, said that as a single mother she had to work two jobs to earn enough money to support her family. At one point, she had to work at McDonald's and at a shoe factory, she said.
“I tried to put their education first, before me,” said McFarlane who currently works as a nursing assistant at a home for senior citizens. “I've never had what I’m trying to do for them.”
Jemarley said it was tough growing up without a father. “He just stopped showing up,” he said.
Once, when he was in high school, he said he went to visit his father against his mother’s will. “But it didn’t work out at all,” he said about their brief encounter.
Growing up in Jamaica, Queens also influenced him. “I think Jamaica made me who I am,” he said. “I saw things there that I wanted to change and I also wanted to get away from there.”
Jemarley, whose name is a combination of Jah, the Rastafarian god, and Bob Marley’s last name, went to Law, Government and Community Service High School in Cambria Heights.
During his junior year, he was accepted to the U. S. House of Representatives Page Program, where he worked as a clerk for Reps. Gregory Meeks and James Clyburn and assisted then-Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, he said.
During the six-month program in Washington, D.C., he attended school in the morning and worked at the Capitol the rest of the day.
He was one of two African-Americans in the program, he said.
“I experienced firsthand educational challenges faced by inner-city youth,” McFarlane said. “I wasn’t reading or writing at the same level as my peers who had attended far more prestigious private high schools.”
But he said the experience pushed him to “try new things.”
After he came back to New York, he interned for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and later, when he was 17, for a local development agency, the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
An after-school internship at first, it later became his full-time summer job. “I felt like I was giving back to the community,” he said.
McFarlane said that while at Greater Jamaica, he helped organize the annual Harvest Festival that showcases local vendors and arranges activities for kids.
He also helped install an information kiosk in Jamaica, enabling visitors who come to the neighborhood to learn about its rich history, cultural institutions and shopping opportunities.
“I like to think of Jamaica as the transportation hub or mecca for Queens,” he said. “Also, with the LIRR expansion, I was always excited to see new people coming to Jamaica. It’s a very diverse community.”
During his senior year of high school, he earned a full-ride scholarship through the Posse Foundation, an organization that recruits talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds and sends them to prestigious colleges.
The program allowed him to attend Colby College, where he is majoring in American Studies, with a minor in African-American Studies.
He said he wanted to study political science, but then he realized that classes offered to those who major in American Studies, including race relations, were far more interesting to him.
While in college, he also had a chance to go to South Africa, where he studied at the University of Cape Town, further developing his interest in racial relations, he said.
In South Africa, he said, he realized he wanted to teach people who had been marginalized.
It’s one of the reasons, he said, why he applied for a Fulbright fellowship. In July, after he graduates, he is scheduled to go to South Korea, where he will work as an English Teaching Assistant.
“Jemarley was always a winner,” said his mother, adding that as a child he wanted to be a judge. “I’m so proud of him. He knows what he wants and he goes for it.”
Jemarley, who says in his spare time he loves to watch TV shows ("The Wire" is his favorite), play chess and basketball, is planning to study law when he returns from South Korea.
He also has one other goal, he said.
“I hope my mom will have the opportunity to go to college one day," he said.