Hodges University is home to almost 2,000 students, each with their own story to tell. Many students face struggles every day, whether it is financial, medical, family or work, but each student has something to prove, either to themselves or to someone else. For Jeanette “Jay” Colon, a degree means more than a piece of paper, it means attaining a level of success many felt she would never reach.
Although a student in the interdisciplinary studies program, Colon is a familiar face on the Hodges campus. Not only is she a student, but she also serves as the retention specialist for the university’s Student Success department.
“I love what I do. I get to talk to students every day and encourage them to not give up when it gets hard,” she said.
For adult learners, the pressures of life can often take a toll, which means school can often become a back-burner task when facing life’s challenges. It can become worse when students don’t have the support they need – a feeling Colon personally understands.
A native of Fort Myers, Colon grew up in a low-income area of town, surrounded by crime. Losing her father when she was only 8 years old, her mother was left to raise three children on her own. At 15 years old, Colon learned she was pregnant, and by 16, she became the mother to twin girls, Anabelle and Jaylene. Unable to finish high school, she dropped out and married her boyfriend that same year. Three years later, the two welcomed their son, Romeo.
As a young couple raising three children, the situation at home grew challenging, so she and her husband divorced. With no car to help her get around town, she and her children left the house at 5:00 a.m. each morning and walked to Palm Beach Boulevard to ride the LeeTran bus. After dropping her twins off at school and her son at daycare, Colon attended a nearby school to finish her high school degree, which she earned in December 2011 at the age of 21. Considering options for high education, she visited
Edison State College (now Florida SouthWestern State College) but felt as if she were having an anxiety attack, saying, “Every person I went to sent me to someone else, and then someone else, and then someone else. By the end, I was full of anxiety and decided I couldn’t do it.”
During this time, she secured a job at the same daycare where she took her children, working there for three years until 2015. Being able to be with her children each day made life just a bit easier, however, words from her ex-husband resonated.
“I can remember him telling me, ‘Who’s going to want you with three kids? You’ll never amount to anything,” she said. Similar words were spoken to her from others who said, “You ruined your life at 15. You’ll never go anywhere.”
By January 2014, Colon found herself moving from house to house, staying with family members to ensure her children had a place to live. Unhappy with her situation, she knew there was more to life, so she began looking at options to return to school. Passing by Hodges every day, she visited the admissions office to learn more. Having an interest in criminal justice, she decided to enroll in the associate program. Little did she know how big of an impact Hodges would play in her life.
No more than one week after losing her job at the daycare in 2015 did she walk onto the Fort Myers campus for class and receive an offer for a front desk work-study position.
“I remember Jeanette Vargas was at the front desk and she asked me if I would be interested in a work-study position with the front desk in Fort Myers,” she said. Taking her up on the offer, she began to see the pieces coming together. Not only was she furthering her education, but she was now able to work on campus.
“Jeanette was a great mentor. She was the one who recommended I apply for the front desk position in Naples,” she said. “I can remember sitting outside on some benches and Jeanette doing mock interviews to help prepare me. She even looked over my resume.”
After accepting the position in Naples, she met Tina Teets, front desk manager. “Oh, Tina is amazing. She and I were a real team,” she said.
Completing her associate degree in 2016, Colon believed she was finished with school. She was officially the first person in her family to earn a degree, so in her mind, she was finished with her educational journey. Yet, a fellow colleague reminded her that she was not finished.
Earning my degree and bettering myself isn’t just for me, it’s for my kids. I want them to be proud of me and to see me as a role model, – Jay Colon
“Brian Hawkins came up to me and said, ‘Oh no, you’re not done yet. Go on and get your bachelor’s. Your kids are going to want to beat their mom one day, and instead of just having to beat you with a bachelor’s, they’ll have to beat you with a master’s,’” she said.
Realizing she didn’t want to continue with criminal justice, she opted to enroll in the bachelor’s program for interdisciplinary studies in summer 2016. Learning about effective communication, strategic planning and global diversity, it is the critical thinking that resonates most with Colon.
Since accepting her new position in Student Success, Colon is seeing how the lessons taught in class are playing a role in her professional work. “As a retention specialist for the university’s Student Success department, I am forced to think critically and strategically. When I’m advising my students, I do it as if I were them,” she explained.
Additionally, Colon praises Dr. Cynthia Gomez and her Fundamentals I and II courses, saying, “Those Fundamentals classes were vitally important. Without them, I know I would have never made it through Composition. I appreciate the time she took to engage us and talk to us about our assignments.”
Invited to come to professor’s classrooms to discuss available resources, she often hears students ask why classes such as Fundamentals are necessary. Using her own experience, she reminds them by saying, “To be able to know how to write correctly and effectively, it sets you up for life.”
Planning to graduate in December 2017, Colon is currently finishing her minor in management, all while working to help others succeed in their own educational journeys. From in-class advice to leading a Language Learners Support Group for English as a Second Language (ESL) students, she has found her passion.
“Earning my degree and bettering myself isn’t just for me, it’s for my kids. I want them to be proud of me and to see me as a role model,” said she. At 27 years old, Colon is not only finishing her degree, but she has created stability for her and her three children by buying her first home. “My mother and sister have been such a strong support system for me, and for that I am grateful. Additionally, Hodges has made me more confident as a professional and provided me opportunities I could have never imaged.
Fear has often kept me from moving forward, but Hodges and its people continue to push and encourage me every day.”