Madelyn McClarey, a mother of three, had known that most teens are eager to start lives away from their parents once they graduate from high school.
So, the day McClarey’s identical twin sons, Aaron and Aubrey Hough, each received scholarships to Florida A&M University, she figured that after they moved seven hours north from Hollywood, Fla., to Tallahassee, she’d be lucky to see them on weekends.
But her sons had something else in mind. The twins told her they’d move to Tallahassee on one condition.
She had to go with them — and work toward the college degree she’d always wanted.
“I was a little shocked, to be honest,” she said. "But when I realized they were serious and weren’t going to leave home unless I moved with them, I said, 'Well, all right — let’s go, then.’”
And that is how McClarey ended up in an emerald green cap and gown this month at FAMU, promenading to “Pomp and Circumstance" in a pair of high-heeled designer boots to pick up her diploma.
Cheering her on were her twins — who play in the marching band at FAMU — and her older son, Blake Hough. All four were attending college together.
“Our mom is so determined and dedicated, we’re lucky to have her as our mother,” said Blake Hough, who lives with McClarey in a Tallahassee townhouse while his twin brothers share an apartment near campus. “It was a lot of hard work, but she never gave up.”
McClarey’s sons jumped and hollered as she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in education, thrilled that their mom finally had the degree she’d dreamed about for more than two decades. Her professional goals were put on hold when she became a single mom caring for three kids. Before motherhood, before divorce, McClarey had gone to business school.
McClarey’s professors said they were equally proud of their hardworking student.
“Madelyn is such an inspiring person — while things have not come easy, she has persisted,” said Jenise Hudson, an associate professor of English at FAMU. “Her optimism and curiosity have been infectious since I met her.”
McClarey’s sons now joke that they’d better get moving if they want to keep up with their mom. “She’s set the standard,” said Aubrey Hough, 22.
He plans to graduate this fall with a music industry degree, while his twin, who is majoring in music composition, hopes to graduate sometime in early 2020. Their older brother, Blake, 25, is aiming to graduate with his music industry degree sometime in 2021.
McClarey, who described herself as “40ish,” said that when her sons insisted she go with them to college four years ago, she was surprised but delighted.
As she’d often observed while helping her sons do their homework when they were younger, “the family that studies together stays together,” noted McClarey.
“As far as I can remember, our mom was always teaching and helping us,” said Aaron Hough. “We got into grade school already knowing our colors and knowing how to read. She always had time for us.”
In summer 2014, Aaron Hough moved into a dorm at FAMU first and was joined in the fall by his twin. They were soon followed by their mom, who first took several classes at Tallahassee Community College and earned an associate of arts degree, then transferred her credits to FAMU. Blake Hough, who had also attended community college, decided to pursue a music industry degree at FAMU and moved in with his mom.
McClarey, who worked as an education researcher while taking a full load of classes, quickly immersed herself in college life, becoming president of FAMU’s English Literary Guild and attending football games to cheer on the Rattlers and watch her sons march in the band at halftime. Aaron Hough, who is called “Twin 1” by his mother, plays the trombone, while Aubrey Hough — “Twin 2” — plays percussion, including the cymbals.
McClarey's sons said they got a kick out of bumping into her on campus as they rushed back and forth to classes, telling their friends, "There goes my mom." Some say she looks like she could be their sister.
“People were really surprised to find out that not only was she going to school with us, it was our idea for her to go there,” Aaron Hough said. “We didn’t think it made sense for her to live hours away through traffic while all of us were up here.”
“It seemed like the perfect solution,” added his twin. “Since she wanted to get a degree anyway, why not join us?”
Now that McClarey has graduated, she doesn’t plan to leave Tallahassee anytime soon. She wants to stick around to encourage and support her sons, but there is also another matter to tend to.