One day, a woman carrying a particularly suspicious tray of cookies passed her near the main entrance to Bolingbrook High School. A slight interrogation and a few cookies later, Jones was on her way to earning her first college degree at age 51 – joining her two sisters as first-generation college graduates.
The cookie carrier was an academic advisor with Benedictine University who told Jones about a program that would allow her to go back to school while saving as much as 25 percent on tuition. Intrigued, and wanting to verify the truth of the woman’s claims, she attended an information session and brought along her sister, Prescillia Spencer.
Two years later, Jones, a paraprofessional at Bolingbrook High School, graduated from Benedictine University with an Associate of Arts in Business Administration degree. Her sisters, Pamela Kuykendall and Spencer, both of Naperville, graduated with her.
Kuykendall spearheaded the sisters’ educational pursuits, earning an Associate of Arts in Business Administration from Benedictine in 2010. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Management. Spencer earned an Associate of Arts in Business Administration.
The sisters always believed in hard work and education, but did not have the opportunity earlier in life to earn degrees. The grandmothers of a collective 21 grandchildren certainly never imagined all three would earn degrees simultaneously.
“I think it’s a once in a lifetime experience that I will cherish forever,” said Kuykendall, 46, a state of Illinois rehabilitation case coordinator who will graduate with honors. “Who would have ever thought that my sisters and I would be graduating together?”
The sisters grew up with three other siblings on the West Side of Chicago. They learned at an early age what it took to provide for a family. Raised largely by their mother, who worked factory jobs to provide for her six children, the sisters learned the value of family and perseverance.
“Our mom was from Mississippi and did not get a chance to get a higher education,” said Spencer, a mother of four and grandmother of 10. “But she taught us about good work ethics and values.”
Benedictine’s Moser College of Adult and Professional Studies provides flexible programs for non-traditional students and the University’s values-based curriculum fit well with the family values of the sisters.
Though the degree pursuits were challenging for the sisters – all of whom are working adults raising children and grandchildren and heavily involved in community service – they encouraged each other to stay on track, remembering the values their mother taught them.
“We were taught one thing, and that is to help each other,” Jones said. “When our mother became sick, all of my brothers and sisters got on the phone together and said, ‘We need to make a decision and take care of our mom.’
“When we were little, my mom was a single parent and she would pray all the time and sometimes she would make us all sit with her and pray,” Jones added. “She would also make us say ‘I love you’ to each other and said that all we have is each other.”
Along with praying together, this family learned to study together. Spencer and Jones even joined the same study group. The prayers and study groups were needed whenever doubt entered anyone’s mind about being able to successfully complete a degree program while facing life’s normal challenges.
“When I was taking my second class, I thought, I can't do this,’” said Jones, a resident of Romeoville and also a grandmother of 10. “Then I would focus on the reason why I am here – to help my students at Bolingbrook High School be confident that they can do it,”
The sisters’ children, some who have graduated or will be graduating from college soon, are very excited and proud to see their mother and aunts achieve at the university level. Each sister is just as proud of each other and themselves.
All three sisters believe the college degrees will enhance their career opportunities. In fact, Jones already received a promotion.
Spurred by an increasingly competitive workplace that limits advancement without postsecondary education, Spencer, 55, a supervisor at Maryville Academy in Bartlett, never imagined she would be earning a college degree at this stage in her life. Now she cannot imagine stopping at an associate degree.
“I did not think I would make it, going back to school at my age,” Spencer said. “No way. I have had some fantastic teachers. I do not plan to stop. I plan to go through the bachelor’s program. It’s hasn’t been easy, but it has been a wonderful journey.”