Rutgers student goes from doo-wop star to dutiful pupil
After living a life of music, fame and adventure, Marilyn Ali, 65, is about to take her final bow as a Rutgers student before the curtain falls on her undergraduate career.
The School of Arts and Sciences senior, resident assistant, doo-wop singer and former EE bus driver is set to receive her bachelor’s degree this May as a communication major and theater arts minor. Ali plans to attend graduate school for social work after graduation.
The second of nine children born to a single mother in the Bronx, Ali lived an eventful life after leaving high school in what is now the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. Many years after graduating, she took online classes with the University of Phoenix and eventually found herself at Rutgers.
“The only thing that I felt was missing was interaction,” she said. “I still wasn’t getting fulfilled with all that you hear about when you come to a university or college: the happenings that go on, the excitement with learning and the growth from meeting new people."
As a student, Ali never felt any kind of intimidation during her undergraduate career, nor has she experienced any discrimination for being older than students studying on the traditional path, she said.
“This is the honest-to-God’s truth: No one — none of the traditional students — have ever made me feel like I was too old,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I get just the opposite because — I don’t want to be bodacious — but I’m very useful.”
Unlike traditional college students, Ali’s main concern with going back to school was getting her family situated in New Jersey after they lived in New York for years, she said.
But being a non-traditional student has its advantages.
Coming into school after having many years’ worth of life experience allows non-traditional students to have more talking points, Ali said. This gives them a chance of earning full participation credit.
“I don’t look at myself as separated from (traditional) students, I consider myself to be a student,” Ali said. “While no one has actually treated me badly … sometimes I think I should step back a little bit sometimes.”
But not stepping back was exactly what propelled Ali into venues across the world after working as a bank teller and customer service representative.
“I’m too much of a performer, you know I’m all over the stage,” she said. “I’m a mover, I dance, I interact with my audience and that kind of thing. It’s two different worlds ... but I feel like I exited at the appropriate time.”
In the late ‘80s, Ali tried out for a new group called The Teenagers — an offshoot of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers — whose single, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” helped popularize doo-wop music when it took the U.S. by storm in the ‘50s.
While Ali was backstage at Radio City Music Hall with The Teenagers, Delores “Dee Dee” Kenniebrew — the only original member of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” group The Crystals — asked her if she would want to travel with the group to Europe.
In addition to performing at Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ali performed for Queen Elizabeth II.
“Being with the ladies wearing the sequin dresses and the gowns — it was just fabulous,” she said. “Seeing Radio City as a child, and then performing in there like four or five times … Even though I knew I wasn’t an original, I felt like a star. I felt like I belonged there.”
Ali returned home from the road in 1997 and began producing albums for Tower Records. Her own LP, “I Kan’t Hold On,” featured 10 songs, including five that she had written.
The album consisted primarily of ballads, and the single, “Never Give Up” was played on major New York radio stations, Ali said.
Ali’s fellow resident assistants now play that album frequently, along with a contemporary gospel album she released in 2009.
“They said to me, ‘That kinda music — that’s soulful,’ and that made me feel so good because I knew that they were being honest,” she said. “No matter how talented you are, you have your gifts and talents. But God puts gifts and talents in other people that you need to take you to the next level."
When she was a first-year student, before switching her major to communication, Ali was enrolled in Mason Gross School of the Arts as a vocalist, she said. Her professors trained her in classical music and opera.
“While I appreciate classical and opera, I don't have the passion in me to turn it into something that could be lucrative,” she said. “Rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, gospel — I grew up with that. That’s my roots. That’s what’s in me.”
But more recently Ali was back in the spotlight when a video of her singing opera in the Neilson Dining Hall circulated on Facebook and Twitter.
“If I’m not performing, in some capacity at all, it’s like I’m dying,” she said. “It stays with me. I can’t not sing — I have to perform.”
While much of Ali’s life was encompassed by music and artistic expression, she decided that she wants to live for others.
Ali’s interest in social work has its roots in the time she spent as a foster parent, she said.
Ali took care of eight boys who lived in her house during different time periods when she was a foster parent from 2004 to 2010. The most she had at one time was a set of three brothers.
The aspiring social worker wants to study the field’s clinical component so she can reduce problems or eliminate them altogether instead of addressing psychological issues after they become problematic, Ali said.
“I think that I have a way of speaking or communicating to people and getting through,” she said. “I’ve had these boys who have done some things, and they’ve actually felt comfortable with revealing these things to me. They knew it wasn’t going to anywhere else but with me.”
In addition to singing in New Brunswick’s Abundant Life Family Church choir and finishing the schoolwork she needs to complete her degree, Ali works part-time as a substitute teacher in the North Plainfield School District and as an Uber driver on weekends.
Ali’s story has inspired other non-traditional students to go back to school. The most recent person is a EE bus driver who shared her desire to attend college while taking a break outside the College Avenue Student Center.
While Ali is aware of how she has lived her life unconventionally and takes pride in the efforts she took to reach this point in her life, she never lets her age excuse her from pursuing her dreams and thanking those who help her on the way.
“It’s the love that I get. They make me feel like I still got it,” she said. “I’m at age 65, but I don’t feel like that’s near the end of my life — I’m just beginning.”
Dan Corey is the Copy Editor of The Daily Targum. He is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and journalism and media studies. Follow him on Twitter @danielhcorey for more stories.