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A lift in confidence is given, received

Berklee grad finds therapy in the music

Gwyndolyn Jones (left), was greeted by music therapy professor Karen Wacks after receiving her diploma from the Berklee College of Music on Saturday. (Bill Polo/Globe Staff)

Twice she tried. And then Gwyndolyn Jones succeeded.

The 25-year-old Boston woman graduated on Saturday with a bachelor's degree in music therapy from Berklee College of Music and plans to use her degree to help the troubled teens who motivated her to get back on academic course and finish what she began.

She hopes, she said, to help children or forgotten people in society, such as those serving time in prison, to express their emotions and overcome emotional barriers within.

"Music is the universal language," she said. "No matter where you're from and what happens to you, everyone has a connection to music. It's there. You might not find it today, but it's there."

It took Jones some time to learn that lesson.

She arrived at Berklee in 1999 on a full-tuition scholarship, but dropped out two years later when she became pregnant. She returned almost a year later, but quit school again halfway into the semester because it was too difficult to juggle caring for a baby, taking a full-course load, and holding a part-time job.

She had all but given up on earning a degree at one of the nation's premier music colleges until she started volunteering at a group home in Jamaica Plain for teenage girls. She saw much potential beneath their low self-esteem, but felt powerless to help them. It was then she thought back to Berklee, and a course she had taken in music therapy, as a way to boost their spirits.

On Saturday, she was among more than 800 Berklee graduates to receive diplomas at Boston University's Agganis Arena.

"I feel relief," she said yesterday. "I'm very humbled about how my life has turned."

When Jones started at Berklee, all signs indicated she would do well. The Milton High School graduate had been a part of Berklee since she was 12, having participated in the college's city music program for children and teenagers. Her older sister, Nichelle, was a graduate of the college .

But Jones's first choice of a major did not click. She was turned off by the math and technical skills that a career in production and engineering required.

"I looked at the sound board and thought, 'Wow, I'm supposed to work that thing -- all those knobs and buttons,' " Jones said. "It looked cool, but I didn't have the passion to learn it."

Without a clear plan to use her musical gifts, the vocalist lost her enthusiasm for classes, although she maintained a grade point average above the required 3.0 to keep her scholarship. By the time she became pregnant in the fall of 2001, she had decided to take a break from school.

"I think I was really tired of being around here," she said. "I never had a break from here. All my summers were spent at Berklee."

In June 2002, Jones gave birth to a son, Jah'Len, and returned to classes six months later. She did not finish the semester.

"It was too much, and I still didn't know what I wanted to do," she said. "I was not feeling confident, I had low self-esteem, and I was feeling depressed. When I left Berklee, I had no intention of returning, and gave up the scholarship."

Convinced a college degree was not in her future, Jones bounced from job to job, working as a customer service representative, a receptionist, and even advising students on college loans. She also thought about opening a day-care center.

But in 2004, she started volunteering at the Shiloh House, a home in Jamaica Plain for troubled teenaged girls. It crushed her to hear how little the girls thought of themselves.

"They live with this 'Scarlet Letter' on them: 'I'm bipolar, I got knocked up, I'm stupid, or I'm ugly.' They would say, 'Nobody cares about me, so why should I?' " she recalled.

Jones decided to show them that she cared. Thinking back to an introduction to music therapy class at Berklee, she believed she could help them build self-confidence by having them get in touch with their feelings through music. She read rap lyrics to them, asked them to analyze the words, and had them write songs.

And she wrote them notes, telling them what beautiful people they are and asking them how things were going at school and in their lives.

The girls opened up, but she was unprepared to handle the information they shared. Responding to Jones's letters, the girls wrote such things as: "I think I'm pregnant;" "I just had sex outside in the woods with a boy," and "I think I'm going to get high."

Jones did not share the information with her supervisors, fearing she would break the girls' trust in her and in people who might want to help them. Instead, she decided to go back to college to study music therapy so she could truly make a difference in people's lives.

Berklee gave Jones her scholarship back, and she started taking classes again in summer 2005. It was tough balancing the demands of classes, childrearing, and a part-time job. But she said her faith in God and her supportive family helped her get by. She even found time to perform in a band.

"She wasn't the same person when she came back," said Karen Wacks, a professor of music therapy. "Her life experiences had matured her."

Before she starts a job, Jones plans to go to Kenya for two weeks to help children suffering from HIV/AIDS.

"I see her helping people of all walks of life," said Wacks. "She has a lot of empathy and musical skills. That's a great blend for a musical therapist."