They laugh easily and fit in well with their Cornell University classmates. But the road Jeremy March and siblings Xavier and Javail Bourne took to the Ivy League was an unlikely one.
All three were raised from an early age by their grandmother, Susan Bourne, in Ithaca, N.Y.
Bourne remembers the judge asking her, “You’re going to take all three of them?”
“I said, ‘Yep, that’s right.’ I couldn’t see breaking them up. I just couldn’t see it. They have each other and always have. I really felt sorry for them,” she says.
After raising two daughters of her own, Bourne adopted her grandchildren when Jeremy was 6, Xavier was 5, and Javail was 4.
Javail, for one, says she thanks God that the family was kept intact and she didn’t end up in a foster home.
“We didn’t miss out on anything growing up, I feel,” she says.
Bourne says life wasn’t always easy, and she often prayed for her new children. She took them to a Pentecostal Baptist church on Sundays.
“They were raised up in the church,” she says. “I think it had a lot to do with their faith and how well they’re doing. I’m very proud of them.”
Music and mentors
When Bourne found out The Salvation Army in Ithaca offered free music lessons on Wednesdays, she enrolled the kids.
Jeremy says he and his siblings found early role models at the Ithaca Corps (church), among them Majors Ronald and Deborah Lugiano and Ben Payton, the music director. The Lugianos were corps officers (pastors) at the time.
“We had father figures in The Salvation Army who we could go to and talk to about certain things,” says Jeremy, who learned to play the piano at the Army. “Big Ben Payton was a great example.”
Xavier, who learned the tuba at the corps, describes Ronald Lugiano as “amazing” and “awesome” and a major influence.
“They were aware of our situation, and they were not like our surrogate fathers, but, in a sense, [they were] very accommodating in providing their knowledge for us as father figures,” Xavier says.
Major Deborah Lugiano started the music program at the corps in 1997.
“She was definitely like a mother too,” Xavier says. “She was very warm and comforting.”
Wednesdays at the Army
Javail, who also learned to play tuba, was close to Payton’s daughters.
“That was just another reason for me to go there,” she says. “It was a family kind of setting.”
Javail would attend both her home church and The Salvation Army if she had to play in a concert on a Sunday.
When the kids came to the corps on Wednesdays, they made a night of it.
“Every aspect of The Salvation Army was great, from the meals we had after lessons to watching the band practice,” Jeremy recalls. “We could talk to our instructors about Christ and our walk with Christ as we were learning to play an instrument, which was great. It was sort of killing two birds with one stone. It was great having that guidance.”
Xavier says, “We got to grow instrumentally and spiritually as well. The whole atmosphere of going there on Wednesdays and doing band and seeing the people who were in the band and building relationships with them, it was just a great time.”
Ben Payton called the trio “great kids” and says he still follows their achievements.
“I’m really extremely proud of them and the hard work they put in,” he says. “It really was against the odds.”
All three siblings display a spiritual maturity far beyond their years at Cornell as they balance academics and their walk with God.
Jeremy is involved in Campus Crusade for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA); Xavier takes part in those two organizations along with a dorm Bible study; Javail teaches Sunday school at her church.
Jeremy transferred to Cornell after graduating from Tompkins Cortland Community College near Ithaca, where he played basketball. (See sidebar.) Xavier transferred from Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens. Javail entered Cornell right out of high school.
Javail remembers the day they all found out that they would be going to Cornell together.
“Once we all got in at the same time, we were like, ‘Wow, we actually did it! Can you believe that?’ We’re all here at the same time and it’s kind of unreal for us,” she says.
A 21–year–old senior, Jeremy is majoring in development sociology with a minor in law society. He hopes to work in policy analysis and possibly do data analysis or research for the federal government. His associate’s degree is in criminal justice.
Xavier, a 20–year–old junior who has already earned his pilot’s license, majors in hotel administration and travel and tourism. He hopes to be an upper–level manager in the airline industry or an airport manager.
Persons of influence
Javail, 18, is a sophomore majoring in development sociology, and she would like to be involved someday in social work with children.
“I want to work with families that have kind of gone through the same thing that I’ve gone through, but more in a way of just inspiring them to stick together and move on from different situations in their lives,” she says.
Javail is already an influence at her church, where she works with children from toddlers to teens.
“It’s really great to just talk to them and have them talk back to me about what they’re going through and just chatting about the Bible and their experiences,” she says. “I get very positive feedback from them.”
Javail’s brothers are also giving back outside the classroom. Jeremy will soon be volunteering at a basketball camp at Ithaca High School.
Xavier says that whatever he is doing, it’s important that the Lord be at the center of it.
“You want to have a relationship with God no matter what you do, so if it’s through music, dance, theater, kind of take advantage of those opportunities and get to know God more,” he says. “It will come back to you in the long run. God will bless you when you seek God first and then everything will come after.”
Blessings and challenges
Looking back, Jeremy says family and friends prayed for him and his siblings since they were little, that they would be healthy and prosperous, but still, it’s hard for him to comprehend the miracle that he and his siblings were accepted to a prestigious school like Cornell.
“It’s a blessing,” Jeremy says. “In retrospect, we certainly have had angels encamped around and about us to protect and watch over us. … We’ve made it through the trials, and now God is bestowing His goodness on us … . ”
Xavier called being accepted to such a prestigious university a mixed blessing.
“It’s a blessing because we made it to Cornell, but God is holding us to higher standards, and so we have to perform to those standards—nothing less.”
Leon Lawrence, who recently retired as Cornell’s director of the Office of Minority Educational Affairs, told the Cornell Chronicle newspaper that the students are “exceptional” and “have demonstrated their strong motivation and intellect.”
“They’re very focused, no–nonsense,” he told the Chronicle.
Javail said going to The Salvation Army and other programs growing
up “kind of got my mind off the nega-tivity and put my mind to something more constructive.” She knows that many of her friends who grew up in similar circumstances were not as blessed.
“I always say I was able to get here because we had The Salvation Army, because we had my own church, and then many other different programs that … kept us active and kept our minds on a positive road,” she says.
Her brothers agreed. Xavier recalls all the opportunities he received to go to Salvation Army music camps and competitions, which helped him to grow and develop as a person.
“God is doing a lot of things in our lives,” Xavier says. “He is providing opportunities that I wouldn’t necessarily be offered. Just going to Cornell and being associated with The Salvation Army, it offered me a lot of opportunities.”
Jeremy quotes Matthew 23:12 (“For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”) when he thinks of the family’s journey.
“Our lives have pretty much been a humble walk with Christ, and now we’re being exalted because of our walk thus far,” he says.