With a song in her heart
First-generation grad plans to teach music in British Virgin Islands
KENNESAW, Ga. (Dec 11, 2017) — For Jennell Smith, it’s been a long journey since her 2005 high school commencement, but the vivacious soprano and first-generation Kennesaw State student is looking forward to graduating this month with a bachelor’s degree in choral music education, summa cum laude. Then, it’s on to a new challenge as a music teacher in the hurricane-ravaged British Virgin Islands.
As a 29-year-old single mother of two young boys, Smith is used to taking on new challenges and succeeding. Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and raised in the British Virgin Islands, the tenacious Smith has faced many moves and challenges along the way to completing her education.
The first of these came in 2000, when she was 12 years old. Her family left their island home to move to rural Tennessee. The following year, they were on the move again, this time to metro Atlanta’s Sandy Springs community.
And just a few years later, and another move put the family near Cobb County’s Sprayberry High School. While the rigors of settling into high school are difficult enough for most American teens to navigate, an unexpected pregnancy can throw even the steadiest person off course.
“Twelve years ago, I was a high school senior walking across the stage, and I was six months pregnant,” Smith said, recalling yet another challenge to overcome. “But I knew I wanted to rise above the statistics of teen moms and further my education.”
With the help and support of her mother and sister, Smith set her sights on earning her first college degree. It was a tough grind, but in May 2014, she received her Associate in Science degree with a focus in music from Georgia Perimeter College.
Then, it was on to Kennesaw State. Smith was determined to get her bachelor’s degree in music, so she could teach.
To make ends meet, Smith juggles various jobs from teaching private music lessons to booking gigs where she sings and plays guitar. She also performs vocals for New Level Music LLC. The music company based in Roswell creates songs for cheerleading routines.
Smith, who recently completed her student teaching assignment at Lovinggood Middle School in Powder Springs, is excited about receiving her diploma this month.
“From 2005 until now, I have been on a journey, and I am so proud to say that I have made it!” she said. “I have an associate’s degree under my belt, and now I will have a bachelor’s to add to it! I am so happy, and it means so much more when you’ve busted your butt for it. I appreciate it so much more!”
She knows it will impart a valuable lesson on her two young sons, sixth-grader Jecori and third-grader Jace, who will be in the audience at the KSU Convocation Center for their mother’s graduation.
“Yes, they had to deal with my busy schedule and may not have had as much time to spend with me as they would like, but they will understand that it was all worth it when I walk across that stage,” she said.
“They will see what hard work can accomplish and how far it can take you,” Smith said. “They are the source of my determination and motivation to keep going and not just to keep going, but to excel. I did not just want to graduate and do enough to get by, but I wanted to excel.
Smith plans to return to the British Virgin Islands next year to teach.
“They were already short on teachers, but since Hurricane Maria hit, they are in greater need,” she said. “I want to make a difference and to be of assistance in any way I can to impact the lives of children. They are our future, and it is my job as a parent and an educator to nurture, teach and guide them to be greater human beings.”
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.