December 9, 2010
More than six years ago, Jennifer Parker's life changed and sent her on a journey that will end Dec. 18.
With her marriage at an end, Jennifer took shift work to help support her then-three children. While she said the pay was good, a constantly shifting schedule meant weeks when she did not see her children.
"I went from being a stay-at-home mom to not seeing them," the Paris, Ill., resident said. "I looked at what I needed to do, what my kids needed me to do, and school was the answer."
On Dec. 18 Jennifer will graduate from Indiana State University along with more than 800 others. The McNair Scholar also will be the first person in her family to graduate with a university degree.
"There are so many emotions at once," Jennifer said. "There's relief that I'm finally there. I'm anxious because I have to do something now."
Her 14-year-old daughter Jasmine Wesley also has thoughts about her mother's graduation.
"It's inspiring," the high school freshman said.
Jennifer's mother, Darlene Parker, plans to be in the audience watching her daughter cross the stage.
"I'm so proud of her," she said. "To me, it's just one of the most wonderful things that could happen to our family."
It hasn't been an easy path for Parker. In high school, she started out being home schooled through correspondence courses.
"Then I got to math and they threw the alphabet with the numbers," she said.
Parker earned her graduate equivalency diploma (GED) in 1997. While through the years she would pick up information about attending Ivy Tech, she would eventually toss it in the trash.
"He (her former husband) didn't make me think I could do it," she said.
But with the end of her marriage, she became determined to create a different life for herself that shift work at a factory. She took the Compass placement exam at Ivy Tech and enrolled at the community college. She qualified for day care and rent assistance as well as the work study.
She and her children would often be sitting together around the kitchen table in the evenings working together on their homework.
"I learned that didn't work well," Jennifer said.
The transition back into school proved trying.
"The first semester was really hard," she said. "It had been so long since I studied."
But she wouldn't let herself give up.
"Once I started, I was going to stick with it," she said. "I'm stubborn."
That included not giving up even when she met math with numbers and letters mixed together, which had derailed her education in high school. She didn't pass the first time. The second time she took the class, she began to understand the concepts of algebra.
"It felt like the ‘Matrix' movie where everything is shown in numbers," Jennifer said about when she understood. "Suddenly, it all made sense."
Jennifer graduated cum laude from Ivy Tech in the fall of 2006 with an associate degree in human services and enrolled at Indiana State University in the fall of 2007. Originally, she planned to study social work, but before classes started she switched her major to elementary education.
"I knew I wanted to work with people," she said. "I was afraid I would get burned out in social work."
An interaction with two of her children's teachers also helped push her into the education field. Jennifer described one of the educators as "one of those veteran teachers who is like a living miracle to education." The other left her upset and understanding why her son no longer wanted to go to school.
"She was rude and acted irritated that I was concerned about my son," Jennifer said. "I left the school that day almost in tears and when I went to back up, I caught my reflection in the mirror. I said, ‘I can do her job better than that!'"
A love of children combined with an enjoyment of helping them learn proved to Jennifer that education was the right choice for her. She decided to study special education in addition to elementary education.
"These kids get really frustrated sometimes when they don't get it," she said about special education students. "I like redirecting my thoughts, to be creative to come up with a way to help them. Being special needs students, they may not get it one way so you have to find another way to help them."
Rebecca Hinshaw, Indiana State assistant professor of elementary and special education, taught Jennifer and respects her effort to become a teacher.
"As a non-traditional student, I admire her tenacity and willingness to pursue her educational goals," Hinshaw said. "Her dual degree will allow her to teach elementary education and k-12 special education. This degree will enhance her ability to meet the needs of a diverse population of students. This, along with her life experiences, makes her a teacher candidate that stands out in a crowd."
Hinshaw also served as Jennifer's mentor when Jennifer researched how rural schools teach students with autism as part of her McNair Scholar project. The McNair Graduate Opportunity Program helps first-generation, low-income college students prepare for graduate education.
She is self-motivated and seeks out new information on topics of which she is interested," Hinshaw said. "I think Jennifer will make a great teacher."
As a McNair Scholar, Jennifer received training and assistance in conducting research, then in writing about it and presenting it.
"It gave me a great experience in how to do research," Jennifer said of her project. "It would be something I could build on."
She sees her graduation as only a pause on a continuing journey through education. She wants to earn a master's degree in education.
From the end of a marriage and a GED to a new marriage, a new daughter and graduating cum laude with a bachelor's from Indiana State, Jennifer has seen her life change.
"I think it's a big accomplishment," her husband Steve Parker, said of his wife's pending graduation.
But, Jennifer has found the biggest change in herself. She encourages others to pursue their dreams of education.
"It's been amazing the change in my self-confidence to know I can go to school and do this," she said. "You're investing in yourself when you get an education, but it does take a long time."
ISU's commencement will be broadcast online, beginning at 11:30 a.m. The processional of graduates is scheduled for 11:45 a.m. followed by the commencement ceremonies at noon. To watch, click on the "Commencement Broadcast" link on the left side of the ISU home page (http://www.indstate.edu). There is no fee to watch the graduation exercises.
Jennifer Parker laughs with her 3-year-old daughter, Jesse. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell
Jennifer Parker displays her poster on autism and rural schools based on research she did as a McNair Scholar. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell
Back, l-r, Jasmine Wesley, Jennifer Parker, Steve Parker, Jacob Wesley; middle: Jesse Parker; front: Justin Wesley ISU Photo/Tony Campbell
Contact: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu
ISU graduation will occur at noon on Dec. 18.