BTN LiveBIG: Rutgers grad's road to a degree paved with perseverance
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The phrase, first ascribed to British writer William Edward Hickson in the 19th century, is one we’re all familiar with. But few of us truly live and breathe it the way Letitia Jones has.
After graduating from Rahway High School in New Jersey, Jones wanted to attend college. However, she didn’t have the financial means to pursue higher education at the time. Instead, she moved out of her house and worked three different jobs, splitting time at a daycare center, a beauty-supply store and a tollbooth on the Garden State Parkway.
Despite the heavy workload, Jones continued to grind away with her eyes constantly fixed on a degree from Rutgers University.
“Rutgers has always had a great reputation, especially for academics,” she said. “I knew it was a great research school, and I could work with some really amazing people there. For me, it was like the upper echelon, and I figured I might as well aim high.”
With a future move to New Brunswick on her mind, Jones started taking classes at Union County College. She’d always been interested in science and considered pursuing a career in chemical engineering, but then her love for geology really took hold.
“The article was about a black woman who went to Antarctica through a program that takes over 100 science teachers from around the U.S.,” she explained. “And she was one of the only African-Americans to go. It was really exciting to read, and I realized this is what I want to do.”
Her desired area of study established, Jones applied to Rutgers in 2009. Even with all the work she had put in, she was rejected.
But Jones refused to let that discourage her.
“I wasn’t really upset because I just knew that I had to work harder, and there would always be time to apply again,” Jones said. “And I kind of learned a lesson. I realized maybe I do have to practice my study methods more and become a better person before I jump into the big leagues.
“I kept on taking classes at the county college,” she added. “I reached over 60 credits and my GPA was pretty high. The experience at the county college was very tedious. You have to take a lot of remedial classes. That part was not easy at all because it took a very long time.”
Jones decided to apply to Rutgers again in 2011. And this time, she got in.
She didn’t have long to bask in her accomplishment. Already married and raising a 4-year-old daughter, Jones became pregnant with twins during her sophomore year. She was placed on bedrest, and gave birth prematurely in September 2013 — around the start of the fall semester — to little Geffrey and Kaya.
That would have been enough to make many other students drop out, or at least take a break. Not Jones. While caring for her children, she still managed to take four classes that fall and work a part-time job with the State of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. She said her husband Geffrey remained supportive of the journey every step of the way.
“My husband played a huge role in just being there for me,” she said. “I would be up late bugging him, telling him all about geology and physics, and he didn’t know anything about what I was talking about. But he was willing to sit there and listen to me vent … And he’d still have to get up and go to work the next day.”
This spring, Jones’s perseverance finally paid off as she earned her bachelor’s degree in geology from Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences. In her immediate future, she’ll work toward attaining her certification so she can teach middle school science and eventually achieve her dream of writing science-based children’s books.
Jones knows that dream would not have been possible without an incredible amount of determination and establishing the right mindset.
“I definitely learned a lot about putting your best foot forward and being confident,” she said. “Everyone’s not going to be an ‘A’ student, but you have to work hard and you have to study. For me, I’m not a natural genius. I have to really work hard and that plays a big role in how I get to the next level.
“A lot of people get discouraged. They start saying, ‘I’m not good at this or I’m not good at that.’ That’s one thing I make sure that I don’t say … I will work hard, and then that will determine whether or not I make it.”
By Jason Dorow