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Family Weekend: Mother’s Tough Love Pushes Daughter to a Mason Degree

October 16, 2015

photo of Maya Brandon, son Noah and mom Sondra

Maya Brandon (right) credits her mother, Sondra (left) for helping her stay on the path to college and to Mason. Sondra cares for Maya’s son Noah while Maya takes night classes. They are the 2015 Alan and Sally Merten Family of the Year. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

By Damian Cristodero

Maya Brandon was not interested in attending college. Her mother, Sondra J. Brandon, who for 17 years has raised Maya as a single mom after Maya’s father left, had other ideas.

It was a test of wills between a daughter more interested in the next party and a mother who has an electrical engineering degree from Boston University and who shuddered at the thought of “all this potential and brilliance going down the drain.”

As Maya, who is scheduled to graduate from George Mason University in the spring with an economics degree, explained her future plans, it’s no wonder Sondra had to smile.

“It’s a blessing to see somebody get on track and progress to success,” she said.

The story of how they came together—and worked so hard to get to this point—is why Maya and Sondra, Maya’s younger brother, J. R., and Maya’s 22-month-old son, Noah, received the Alan and Sally Merten Family of the Year Award. They will be honored at the Mason Family Welcome Dinner on Friday, Oct. 16 as part of Family Weekend.

The award, given by the Office of Orientation and Family Programs and Services, a division of University Life, recognizes the critical role of families in the student experience. And as Maya said, she might be in a completely different place without her mother, who once put her rebellious and pregnant daughter out of the house.

“I had to give her tough love,” Sondra explained.

Here is how Maya described herself in high school: “Just going out and doing whatever I wanted, things against the rules.”

Such as? “The typical stuff,” Maya would only say, adding she never was arrested.

“I did a lot of praying knowing I had to get her back on track,” Sondra said. “I knew the only option for her was to get an education and stop running with that crowd.”

So Sondra, after being downsized from her job as a technology consultant, became a real estate agent in Manassas, Va. She drove Maya to look at colleges and helped her fill out applications. Maya eventually attended Northern Virginia Community College, graduating in 2013 with a 3.3 GPA and a business administration degree.

But before Maya could leave for Old Dominion University, she became pregnant with Noah. And she still partied, all of which soured her relationship with her exasperated mother. They were constantly butting heads, Maya said. It was time for drastic action.

“I had to put her out of the house,” Sondra said. “That was the toughest thing, but that was the only thing that would get her course-corrected.”

Maya stayed for a while with her father, a situation she called “not ideal,” and returned to Sondra ready to get her life together.

“That was the real wake-up call,” Maya said. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m ready to do the work. I’m applying to Mason.’ We basically flourished from there.”

It hasn’t been easy. Maya takes night classes at Mason so Sondra, who works during the day, can care for Noah. An aunt, Cynthia Brandon-Arnold, pitches in as well, as Maya also needed time to earn a real estate license.

Then there are the demons that previously held Maya back.

“I wouldn’t say they are gone, but I handle them,” said Maya. “My mom prays for me. I pray for myself. We stay prayed up because that’s what we have to rely on.”

As for Mason, she said, “I love it. I found this was a place I could blossom, where I could grow, not only for myself but for Noah.”

After graduation, Maya plans to establish a business that combines her economics degree with her real estate license and “find a niche in the market, help people who may have been in my situation and expose them to new opportunities.”

It’s doable with her entrepreneurial studies minor, said Jason Dunick, Maya’s advisor.

“It’s about finding some way to have a business and meet the objectives of profit and social goals,” he said.

Objectives and goals—Maya said she might have neither if not for Sondra.

“I’m so grateful,” she said of her mom. “Even when I had to leave the house, I know she was still looking out for me. She was helping me stand on my own two feet, to learn how to be a productive human being.”