MSW grad ‘grateful’ for foster care, faculty relationships ahead of commencement Saturday

By David Miller

A female university student and her daughter pose for a picture
Commencement baby: Jessica Jones’ daughter Ryleigh was born two years ago, just three days before she was slated to attend her undergraduate commencement ceremony. Ryleigh will attend her mother’s graduate school commencement Saturday.

When Jessica Jones receives her MSW Saturday, her 2-year-old daughter, Ryleigh, will be there to mimic her every move.

“Doing what mommy does” provides for plenty of laughter at home, a welcome reprieve from the “terrible twos” mothers often bemoan when rearing a child.

This stage of Ryleigh’s development also serves as reminder of Jones’ winding path to earning a graduate degree, and as a motivator for beginning her professional career.

Two years ago, Jones was slated to receive her BSW, but Ryleigh was born three days before fall commencement. Jones would not walk during the ceremony, and Ryleigh’s birth delayed Jones’ start of grad school by a semester.

“Doctors told me that it wasn’t looking good and that I needed to have her that night,” Jones said. “She was only two pounds.”

Ryleigh’s delivery and the days following were made easier by a unique support system she’d cultivated at The University of Alabama. Dr. Sebrena Jackson, director of the MSW program in UA’s School of Social Work, held Jones’ hand through the delivery. Jackson’s presence that day was expected; she had attended some of Jones’ doctors’ appointments prior to Ryleigh’s delivery, continuing a relationship that first began when Jones participated in Jackson’s National Social Work Enrichment Program, a summer camp for high school seniors and juniors who live in foster care.

“I couldn’t imagine Dr. Jackson would be a part of my life,” Jones said. “It shocked me, really. [Jackson] took photos and recorded everything for me. I never thought a faculty member would be that involved in my life.”

Jones aspires to build the same lasting connections with children when she enters the workforce, hoping to work in child welfare or school social work. She draws on positive experiences working and relating to adolescents during her internships and at camps for Alabama REACH, UA’s support network for students who are in foster care. Jones, a Greenville native, entered the foster care system in her teens and joined Alabama REACH during her sophomore year.

A female university student poses for a picture
Jessica Jones, who will earn a MSW degree Saturday, leaned on relationships with UA faculty and staff during her undergraduate and graduate studies.

“During one of the camps, I was talking to a girl there about living in a group home,” Jones recalled, “and the girl asked if I worked there. I told her that I lived there, and the girl was shocked. But it was a moment that showed your future can be whatever you make it.”

Commencement week also serves a reminder of Jones’ “biggest motivation” to attend and complete college: her late father, whose birthday is Dec. 9. He passed when Jones was just 11 years old.

Along with Jackson, Jones credits Shannon Hubbard, coordinator for Alabama REACH, with aiding in her transition to campus and continually encouraging her to get involved with the program. Hubbard, too, was at the hospital when Ryleigh was delivered.

Jones’ Tuscaloosa support system is an outgrowth of a foster care system she’s “grateful” for, from the University of Alabama diehards she lived with her senior year of high school, to her social worker, Wanda Coleman, a woman Jones once thought was the “meanest woman ever,” but whom she now holds in great reverence.

Coleman will attend commencement Saturday.

“[Coleman] was serious about her job,” Jones said. “I chose social work as a career because of the impact she had on my life. When I loved in group home, I saw how others didn’t have a social worker involved and how it impacted them. I wanted to make that difference.”