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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Graduate Spotlight: Ebony Jackson

By Betsy Hnath

Ebony Jackson is the first to admit that her freshman year of college was filled with personal hardship. But she's just as quick to point out that without her struggles she wouldn't have come to Old Dominion University, where she says she was "meant to be."

Jackson, a Suffolk native, will be the first in her family to graduate from college when she receives her bachelor's in business administration on May 11.

Jackson transferred to ODU from Virginia Union University in Richmond. She went to college hoping for a "real college experience," but the year was marked by family tragedy.

The first semester, Jackson's brother Demetrius, who lived in Chicago, took his own life.

"I remember getting the call. It was a very numbing feeling," she said. "I didn't want to tell anyone; I just wanted to be by myself."

During her second semester, her grandmother, who had served as her primary parent during much of her childhood, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jackson drove from Richmond to Suffolk every other week to visit her.

"My grandmother was like my mother. She took care of me," Jackson said. "My dad was a merchant marine until he retired about five years ago, so he would leave the country frequently, and my mom moved away when I was 3 months old."

Jackson decided to transfer to a school in Hampton Roads to be closer to her grandmother, other family members and her boyfriend, a student at Old Dominion. She chose ODU because of its "national reputation."

"I also thought the campus was beautiful," Jackson said. "The pictures online don't do it justice. And my best friend transferred to ODU at the same time I did."

Jackson said her first semester at Old Dominion was challenging. Her grandmother was hospitalized for two weeks and faced a long recovery. "I had to balance driving to Suffolk every couple of days. I had to drop two of my classes. It was a juggling act, but being so close was much better.

"Having my boyfriend and best friend here was really helpful," she said. "They were there to lift me up when I needed it."

To help with the academic transition, Jackson took advantage of the resources on campus, including tutoring at the Student Success Center. "I went multiple times a week, and they got me through math and science classes," she said.

Jackson also got involved in the Women's Initiative Network, or WIN, developed by University First Lady Kate Broderick and Pamela Kirk, an alumna who is the secretary of Old Dominion's Board of Visitors.

Students are matched with female executives, alumnae and community leaders. Jackson was paired with local spa owner Suzanne Garcia, with whom she made an "instant connection."

"We talked a lot about the good and the bad, about the entrepreneur life and how to balance it with everyday life," Jackson said. "I think it's very important to have a woman as a mentor. She knows the steps you have to take to be treated equally in the workplace."

Jackson also completed an on-campus internship with the Office of Strategic Communication and Marketing, an experience she recommends to all ODU students.

"I did off-campus internships, but that experience was the best by far. I got to do real stuff, not just make copies or run errands," she said. "It didn't feel like work. I got good feedback that will help me make better decisions in my future career."

Jackson also works about 15 hours a week in her father's real estate business. She does payroll and bookkeeping, which require "reading over everything twice and paying attention to detail."

"It's a challenging job. If I don't do it, people don't get paid," she said. "I can't be lazy with it; those people are depending on me."

Jackson said family members are proud she will soon be a first-generation college graduate.

"My grandfather lives on the land his father purchased. My grandmother never made it past the seventh grade; she had her first child at 13 and had three by the time she was 18. My dad got his GED in his 20s," Jackson said. "Everyone is so invested in this. I feel like the whole family thinks they're getting a degree."

About 25 people will help celebrate her big day. After that, Jackson said she's considering moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, to pursue a career in marketing or real estate.

She'd also like to give back to her community.

"I want to be a mentor to someone, to younger college students or people in high school. I think it's very important to help people."

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