I don’t recall any college conversations growing up. My parents were just trying to make it through life. My mom had started college, but she didn’t finish after becoming pregnant with me at age 21. My stepdad played basketball at a junior college, but he didn’t finish either. My husband Benny’s mom was a teenage mom. She did not finish high school and had to go straight into the workforce.
Our parents, and their parents, did not come from middle class-families. They passed down to their children what they were taught: You take care of your responsibilities.
For them, that meant getting a steady job to support their family. And they did. Our parents provided a safe environment and ensured we never went hungry. Kitchen-table discussions during our childhoods focused on doing the right thing and getting good grades.
But we didn’t talk about plans for our future or what it would take to get there. We were never discouraged from higher education, but college was not a topic our parents could speak on from experience.
Destiny happened when my Oklahoma high school made it a requirement for students to obtain a gym credit.
At the end of my sophomore year, I joined the track team thinking it was an easy sport. Little did I know how untrue that was! Benny, meanwhile, started playing football in seventh grade at his school in Texas. We both had coaches, teachers, friends or parents within our friend groups who introduced us to the notion of college.
Once Benny discovered that college was an avenue, his mindset shifted. He saw an opportunity to create a better life for himself and his future family. Benny knew he had the acumen to excel in academics and on the football field.
Fortunately, we both received athletic scholarships.
I enrolled at the University of Tulsa. Embarrassingly enough, I did not take college seriously when I first set foot on campus. I didn’t realize the impact I could have in changing the direction of my family’s legacy.
I remember skipping the first two days of orientation because I didn’t feel like going. My coach called me on the third day and asked why I wasn’t attending orientation. Turns out he had upperclassmen teammates who served as coach’s eyes and ears!
While on the phone with him, I recall him saying, “Jamese, this is important. You need to take this seriously. Don’t mess this up.” From that point on, I made it my mission to show up—literally and figuratively.
As a student athlete, I was required to take a certain amount of study hall and tutoring hours, which really helped me achieve good grades while running at a high level.
Each semester, you can decrease the amount of required tutoring hours by maintaining a high GPA, which I did. My freshman year I received 86% scholarship, with the rest funded by a Pell Grant. By my sophomore year, I earned a full scholarship through my athletic performance. I am proud to say that during college, I was a top 15 NCAA individual and team qualifier (I ran 100-meter and 400-meter hurdles and the 4×4 relay), and I earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.
Benny earned a 100% football scholarship to the University of North Texas. Once he got there, he used his fear of failure and having to go back home to have a minimum-wage job as a motivator for him to stay focused and succeed.
He was a two-time first team all-conference linebacker, and his freshman year, he received the Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar distinction. Benny graduated from UNT’s School of Business.
Athletics not only provided us the confidence in knowing we could go to college, but also changed the discussions at our families’ kitchen tables. After Benny and I both went to college, it paved the way for our siblings and other family members to have those discussions about their futures. And it has put us in a position to give our children better lives.
Now I’m a marketing professional for a global law firm, and will also be launching a startup called Mentships—a community that will empower corporate women to find mentoring relationships via an app.
Outside of his corporate job as an operations executive, Benny is a real estate investor—he owns a rental house and has completed a house flip. We took the kids to the property and explained to them why we invested in it and what the overall plan is. They may not fully get it now, but it’s a seed that we’re planting for them.
The notion of investing and having multiple revenue streams wasn’t something we learned until adulthood, and we intend to change that conversation with our own children.
With us having solid income, it allowed us to move to where we knew would be a great place to raise our family. We have been blessed to be able to put them in various activities and enroll them in math and coding classes.
Benny and I have not forgotten where we came from, though. We realize there is a huge gap in education for many students, which is heartbreaking and, frankly, unjust. Entry to college is very difficult to navigate without people around you who understand the systems. Knowing this and having experienced it ourselves, we look for ways to help close the gap by supporting others and giving back by participating in career days, contributing to college funds and scholarships, and serving as mentors to the next generation of leaders.
We believe our kids understand the value of education through our words and through our actions. We encourage curiosity and love for them to ask questions.
Benny likes to tell the kids, “The more you learn, the more you earn.” What’s great is that our kids see us working daily, communicating with each other about our day, engaging them to tell us about their day at school and having open discussions about why learning is important. We tell them the house, neighborhood and other things they have are because mom and dad had the opportunity to attend college, earned good-paying jobs and invested.
Our children want to go to college. They want to have a lot of money and live in a big house—that’s their reason right now!
Unfortunately, we had to let them down by telling them that there’s no college degree for being a ninja or a degree for being a princess. But we do show them that their other dreams can be fulfilled by education.
And we want it to keep going with their kids and their kids’ kids. Our goal is for each generation to get better.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Rockwell, Nest Newborns/Jessica Rockwell Photography.