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Business Major Overcomes Hardships In Youth, Looks FORWARD To Future In China

May 7, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

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JaCola Caldwell

Her given name is JaCola, but she says she prefers to go by Difernt, because “in order to be different, you have to do something to be different.”

Coming from a background of emotional, verbal and physical abuse, JaCola Caldwell, a senior at SHSU who graduates this spring with a bachelor’s degree in international business and a minor in business communication and economics, has spent most of her life trying to accept who she is—different.

“I was suffering from an identity crisis a few years ago because I couldn’t tell anyone what my name, JaCola, meant; not even my mom could tell me,” Caldwell said. “I was that person at the computer at 3 a.m. Googling my name. I found out it was just a noun, just a name, but it’s spelled in a specific way, with a capitalized ‘C.’

“So I gave it my own meaning. Difernt just means JaCola,” she said. “I am different from all the rest.”

After many years of emotional hardship, “crazy living situations,” and years spent in foster care, “more and more blessings started flowing in her life,” she said. Not only has she successfully finished college, but she also will be moving to China for a new job after graduation.

“I’m too excited and ready to start my life in China,” Caldwell said. “I will be teaching English with the Amerson Foundation of Education in September, while pursing my MBA online. This will be interesting.”

Her job in China is the culmination of a lot of hard work and inspiration from SHSU. As a student, she traveled to eight countries with the help of Jesse Starkey, study abroad coordinator for the Office of International Programs. She spent a semester studying in Daegu, South Korea, and was able to travel to Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, China and Japan.

“That experience changed my life,” Caldwell said. “I got conned out of two Euros in Germany by a mother daughter duo, and I accidentally set a hotel restroom on fire in Milan. It was simply the best time of my life and college career. So many doors opened up through these experiences for me; in fact, that’s what landed me a job in China.”

Also as a student, she was involved in the establishment of the Pay It Forward organization, a group that helps abused and neglected kids, especially those in foster care, in Montgomery County.

Jacola CaldwellWith the help of SHSU communications studies lecturer Terry Jaggers, a former foster care youth and volunteer with CPS, Caldwell has helped the program grow into one that raises funds for struggling kids through volunteer events and charity runs, provides mentors for them through a special CPS-trained program, and sends speakers to high schools to encourage kids to go to college.

It is a special point of pride for her that Pay It Forward won this year's Sammy Award as "Outstanding Community Service Project" for their “National Adoption Day” event in November.

“Only 2 percent of kids who age out of foster care go on to college and earn a degree,” Caldwell said. “When I heard this statistic, I knew I had do something to boost this stat. Pay It Forward has blossomed into something so magnificent; I have left a fingerprint here at Sam Houston, and I am so proud to entrust to those I know are going to carry my vision on and continue paying it forward.”

The organization is close to her heart because it deals with a struggle she has experienced first-hand, she said.

“At age 11, my family fell on hard times, and even though we lived all over the place—in shelters, bus stops, cars, crack houses, parks—I still had to get up and go to school and work through it,” she said. “Unlike most kids, I begged to be at school because it was my escape from all of the madness I was dealing with. Surprisingly, I never failed a grade, even with all of the nomadic activities I was engaging in.

“When I was 14, I was secretly placed foster care. None of my family members knew about it until six months later,” Caldwell said. “Until I was out of the system, I moved around constantly. I went to 16 different schools, so you can imagine how that can have a major effect on one’s life. I didn’t bother getting to know anyone or making any friends because I knew I would be moved around. I really hurt myself with that one. I brought all that negative baggage with me to college. It was a difficult transition.”

Amidst this struggle, she utilized all of the resources at SHSU, such as getting help from Career Services; openly going to counseling; taking study skills classes and the University 1301 introductory college course; and getting involved in the FORWARD program—a support initiative for former foster youth, orphans, and wards of the state—and Project Connect—a TRIO program that guides first-generation, low-income students through college—as well as Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship and various other organizations on campus.

She credits the FORWARD program with encouraging her through rough times and helping in figuring out her own identity, not just as another foster youth.

“FORWARD provided my support and caring, and they made me feel alive and noticed me,” Caldwell said. “They transformed me from a case number to an individual that has a name.”

Today, she is confident and joyful—an attitude that comes from knowing who she is, she said. It’s something employers noticed when she applied to work overseas, a process that involved interview questions, applications and Skype interviews. Now, as she is awaiting paperwork from the Chinese counsel for a work visa, she is excited to build her career, explore Asia, and maybe even find love.

““My calling in life is to lead to kids to Christ, so in due time I will own a camp that does just that,” Caldwell said. “I have always been a businesswoman; even at age 15, I had already had my major picked and the school I wanted to attend—Sam Houston.

“I guess when you look at the road most foster kids take, I chose a different path,” she said. “I’ve never once been to a house party, clubs, or bars, and I don’t plan on it; thankfully, I’m not a teenaged mom; I’m not in anybody’s prison; nor I am playing the pity role and singing the ‘why me’ song,” she said. “By the grace of God, He has brought me through it all. I have learned to accept that most of the things that I will want in life will not be for me. I chose victory over victimhood. That’s why I am Difernt.”

With so many opportunities ahead of her, Caldwell is again looking to the future, knowing that her experience at SHSU has not just been academic, but as she described it, “life transforming.”

“I want people to know that I am not a cliché or an inspiration, but if my story happens to touch someone’s life and change it, then so be it. I want people to be able to see my situation and see theirs and take control of their situation through their actions and attitude,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want people to see me as a victim, but as an underdog who always turns out on top. No one’s past ever dictates their future.

“In a nutshell, it never matters where you come from or where you’ve been, but where you’re going.”

 

 

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