Turn to the inside back cover of Tracey Sanders’ 1981 high school yearbook, and you’ll find these words in a teenager’s scrawl: “I Love Dear Ole JSU. I’m hoping to attend Jackson State University and major in Early Childhood Education and minor in cosmetology. Look out JSU. Here I come!!!”
Sanders made it to JSU, but it took her 30 years.
During those three decades, she briefly enrolled at Delta State University, married her high school sweetheart, traversed two continents, raised three daughters, cared for an ailing mother and went to work for the Head Start Program in her hometown of Cleveland, Miss.
“I’ve been around the world. I saw President Obama inaugurated both times. I’ve gone places and seen so many things, but nothing will compare to the day I get my degree from JSU,” says Sanders, who’ll receive her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Development during JSU’s commencement exercises on Dec. 13.
“I give all honor and praise to God to have that right mind to pursue one of the goals I wanted to accomplish in life. I just want to cry. My mama is not here to see me graduate. I know she would’ve been proud,” says Sanders, whose mother died in 2002.
Sanders’ desire for that JSU degree never waned; it was just temporarily blunted. Life always seemed to take her in another direction.
“After I graduated from high school, I became afraid to leave home. I was attached to my parents and grandmother. I attended Delta State in Cleveland. Then, I got married. My husband played pro basketball for the South American and European professional leagues,” Sanders says. “When I came back to the states, I was expecting. My husband and I got jobs. And, I set about raising my children.”
Her husband, Robert Sanders, says he can still remember how his wife frequently talked about returning back to the states and going to Jackson State. She became enamored with the campus while she was a junior in high school. Her basketball coach had taken the team there for a visit. After that, Tracey Sanders knew JSU was the place she wanted to be.
Robert Sanders says the graduation will be a long awaited milestone for the entire family, which includes daughters, Krystal, Brittany and Alexis.
“We’ve been married for 27 years, and at the age of 50, to see this actually materialize, it just puts a capital ‘S’ on success,” says Robert Sanders, who is the chief of police for Mississippi Valley State University.
The couple had lived in Jackson before Tracey Sanders and her daughters returned to Cleveland for a few years to care for her mother, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer. For six years, she was her mother’s caretaker.
After her mother’s death, Tracey Sanders and the girls returned to Jackson, where her husband had been living and working as sergeant at arms for the Mississippi State Senate. Soon, it was time for her oldest daughter, Krystal, to decide where she would attend college. She chose Jackson State. At least, Tracey Sanders thought, she could live out her JSU dream vicariously through her daughter.
Krystal Sanders-Pierce says she had the ultimate college experience at JSU. She was Miss Sophomore, junior class vice president, Miss Senior, Miss Baptist Student Union, a member of the Blue Key Honor Society and Chi Alpha Epsilon.
Sanders-Pierce earned a bachelor’s in Business Administration in 2008 and a master’s in Technology in 2010.
“When I graduated, my mom expressed her interest in fulfilling her lifelong dream of attending JSU. I could not have been happier,” Sanders-Pierce says. “I honestly do not believe that there is any school comparable to that of my JSU, and I do not believe that there is an individual more deserving than my mother.”
Sanders’ decision to further her education was based, in large part, on a Head Start mandate that half of the program’s teachers have a bachelor’s degree. At the time, Sanders only had an associate’s degree from Coahoma Community College.
This was Sanders’ chance to finally get to JSU, but she was discouraged by the thought of commuting from Cleveland, where she and Robert had returned. She opted for JSU’s online program.
“Mississippi Valley is a 30-minute drive from my home. But I didn’t want to work all day and drive at night Monday through Thursday. That was too much for me,” Sanders says.
Her JSU experience has been vastly different than her daughter’s, but Sanders doesn’t mind.
“I’ve had the campus life at another school. Doing the online program has been great. I’ve become more computer literate. The first thing I do every day is to check my grades,” she says. “Now that I’ve reached this goal, I may be heading back online for a master’s degree in teaching.”