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When a Promise is Promise


LaDonya Jackson: First–generation Aggie, next–generation veterinarian

LADONYA JACKSON'S MOTHER KNOWS she needs to move.


She needs to get her children away from the socially imploding neighborhood in Stockton, Calif., they're calling home and she needs to do it now. She can't quite see how things are going to work out; she just knows she's got to “get up and go.” The world LaDonya and her siblings are absorbing every day, the bleak streets with their pervasive acceptance of alcoholism and drugs, gang violence and hopelessness, must not — cannot — remain the only world they know. Get up and go. Just get up and go.


Jackson is still a grade–schooler. Even so, her mother's attempts at sifting her and her siblings away from the collapsing life patterns of neighbors and, yes, some extended family members, haven't gone unnoticed. “She let us know that we love them, but that what they were doing was not OK,” Jackson says. “She never let us hang out, just go chill. We'd go to family functions, we were not to judge, but she'd explain, ‘That's not OK. You have to know that.’”


It seems some childhood memories will never fade for Jackson, the determination of her wise, hard–working mother, a hasty hospital visit to a long since out–of–the–picture father shot five times — and then of course her time with animals.


A special connection

For as long as she can remember, LaDonya Jackson has held in absolute clarity the dream she is now eagerly pursuing as a beneficiary of the Aggie Promise Endowment at Utah State University. Every elementary school report, every pie–in–the–sky discussion of her future ends the same way: her being a veterinarian.


“Mmm mmm. Since kindergarten. I love animals and that's the only thing I would want to dedicate my life to,” she says. That's my calling, that's what I'm supposed to do.” But for Jackson it goes way beyond cats and dogs being simply cute and cuddly. Animals bring peace and stability, strength and unconditional acceptance; they are her literal, living, breathing happy place.


“The world LaDonya and her siblings are absorbing every day, the bleak streets with their pervasive acceptance of alcoholism and drugs, gang violence and hopelessness, must not—cannot—remain the only world they know. Get up and go. Just get up and Go.”

“Whenever I'm going through something, that's my go–to thing: animals,” Jackson says. “I've always had that special connection and I've always wanted to be a veterinarian.”


Somewhere along the way a statistics teacher, well aware of Jackson's natural gifts for math and science, tries to push medical school instead. And while, for a second, the option seems logical, Jackson quickly realizes this dogged focus of hers maybe doesn't have to make complete sense all the time. “I thought about it. I thought, ‘that's a little more prestigious,’ but then I sat down and said, ‘am I in it for the prestige or do I want to wake up and go do what I love — wake up every morning and be happy, you know?’”


The fact that Jackson can even recognize such an epiphany, that she can visualize herself the first–ever college graduate in her family, speaks volumes of the urgent “escape away from everything” her mother is able to orchestrate. Leaving Stockton for San Jose, Calif., was never a plan without its challenges — in the beginning Jackson and her four siblings squeeze into a single room at her grandmother's place — but it is a plan that eventually facilitates Jackson taking advanced placement classes in high school, working tirelessly at her mother's day care facility and, more important, a plan that widens perspective and becomes the “beginning of getting everything together.”


Promise Incarnate

At Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., LaDonya Jackson builds a student life far fuller than most. Knowing what she knows and seeing what she has seen makes every minute in every day a gift, not to be squandered. She works as a multi–cultural assistant, serves as president of the Black Student Union, chairs Black History Month events and becomes founder of a new organization on campus called Sister–to–Sister, her own dream designed to support, empower, encourage and advance other women whose futures hinge on perhaps just one extra smile a day. It is less sorority, more sisterhood bonding, Jackson explains. “It is let's get down to work, let's support each other and get this done.”


“I thought about it. I thought, ‘that's a little more prestigious,’ but then I sat down and said ‘am I in it for the prestige or do I want to wake up and go do what I love — wake up every morning and be happy, you know?‘”

Along the way Jackson and others who participate in Sister–to–Sister bring successful–women forums to campus, run budgets, coordinate the minutia of large–scale events, try to sing to kids in a hospital (“none of us have angelic voices,” Jackson says), and borrow a lesson from Jackson's mother to take to area youth in juvenile lockup: “You still have a future ahead of you. You can still get up and go.”


It is also at Foothill that Jackson dreams another dream she has yet to launch, an opportunity organization for inner–city youth designed to keep kids and parents so enveloped in worthwhile pursuits that “they won't have time for gangs and drug dealers or fatalistic thinking.” For now, she's calling it Reach For The Stars, an idea that blossoms in clear detail for Jackson after an English assignment to read Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, a book based on the taped interviews of the neighbors and associates of two teens trying to rise above an environment seemingly devoid of hope.


Jackson's plan for her organization is to start involving participants while they are young, offering small stipends to parents for football or ballet practices and then creative incentives to reward progress and to encourage continued hard work. “I don't know how the funding will come, I have no idea, but I have the dream,” Jackson says, “even if it starts with just one or two kids.”


And she knows all too well the scope of the need. “You go into poor neighborhoods and the only people kids see with money are drug dealers in their big SUVs,” Jackson says. “Some kids don't see anybody else makin' it. They're not watching proceedings from the Senate or Congress, what they see is either people not makin' it, or people doing something illegal. With a little bit of a seed, maybe they'll end up going to junior college, then maybe a university, but you plant that seed so at least they know others are invested in their future, that they can go farther.”


Her eyes are leaping now, and hearing the cadence in her voice quicken as she details the possibilities leaves one thinking Jackson will pull this dream off just as surely as she will any number of others. In the five minutes of serpentine conversation that follow, she lays out plans for authoring a first–person account of the teen advice she herself could never find, her desire to add an MBA to her eventual veterinarian degrees, and the vision for her zoo–like future backyard.


“I heard him talk about it and I looked USU right up and saw that it had Vet Science programs. I was scared at first because I wasn't sure what I was doing—I'd be leaving behind my car and my friends and everything else—but it seemed like doors were opening and I felt like I needed to get up and go. So I got up and went.”

LaDonya Jackson is promise incarnate.


Get Up and Go

Jackson first envisions a future at Utah State University when former Aggie football player Raymond Farris '87 is invited by Sister–to–Sister to speak at Foothill College. During his remarks, Farris mentions The Aggie Promise Endowment designed by USU Pres. Stan Albrecht to provide a financial vote of confidence to first–generation students who might not otherwise get the chance to chase dreams of a college education.


“I heard him talk about it and I looked USU right up and saw that it had vet science programs,” Jackson says. “I was scared at first because I wasn't sure what I was doing — I'd be leaving behind my car and my friends and everything else — but it seemed like doors were opening and I felt like I needed to get up and go. So I got up and went.”


Without knowing how things will play out exactly, Jackson accepts her Aggie Promise on a Thursday and leaves California for Logan the following Wednesday. No pause or wait, just get up and go. “I think that's mostly from watching my mom,” she says. “Life isn't always a straight plot, there are many avenues to try, but you have to get up and try.”


Incredible Journey

There's a sign taped to a machine in Professor Ken White's nationally recognized USU vet lab that reads: “If your name is any name other than LaDonya, you are not allowed to use the osmometer. Management.” But the message in plain–paper lettering reaches far beyond warning. It speaks of dreams and focus, of growth and opportunity and it serves as a marker in one incredible journey: LaDonya Jackson's journey. Jackson considers herself “really blessed” to be getting hands–on veterinarian experience every day at the lab where she's involved in pro–rodeo stock cloning and in–vitro fertilization. And she laughs when she considers just how different those disciplines are from her ultimate dream of running her own small–animal private practice, but she knows she's on track. “I like science and I like medicine and this is all part of my goal, so it ends up working out well for me,” she says. “I never wanted to stop at high school — ever.”


And her mother is already proud. LaDonya's lead has one of her younger sisters now talking of becoming a psychiatrist and the other a fashion designer. Her little brother is sure he'll someday go off to college as well. “If he's not a football player, he wants to be a veterinarian,” Jackson says, “but the important thing is they want to do it, and they know they can.”


When she hears herself speak those words, Jackson seems to pause — maybe for the first time ever — perhaps processing the profundity of the statement.


“I could have strayed,” she then says in a soft, relaxed tone. “I could have gone other ways.”


But LaDonya Jackson didn't — because an Aggie Promise is promise.


—Jared Thayne '99