From homeless and depressed to Student Government Association President and esteemed McNair Scholar, UNT Dallas senior Jessica Armstead beat the odds and overcame obstacles to achieve academic success.
Soon, Jessica will graduate from UNT Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in child development and family studies. Next, she will be headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., on track to earn a master’s degree in social work and eventually a doctorate degree in a related program.
“This is where I need to be,” Jessica thought when she visited the Howard campus in October. But getting there hasn’t been easy.
Jessica’s journey from the street to the UNT Dallas commencement stage is one of strength, persistence and dedication. Following an abusive marriage in which she was victimized both physically and emotionally, Jessica was accepted into UNT Dallas in 2020. It was the beginning of a new chapter in her life where she would finish her undergraduate education and succeed in ways that she had only dreamed.
The challenges Jessica endured started when in 2005 she met a young man at Six Flags. They started dating, and when Jessica graduated, she had plans to attend college in Abilene, TX. But Jessica came home for winter break and never returned to Abilene. Her already-controlling boyfriend would tell her later, “The only reason I asked you to come back from college is I thought you’d find someone better.”
Despite the troubled relationship, Jessica and her boyfriend got married in 2008. Their relationship worsened over time, and they got divorced in 2018. Jessica desperately wanted to go back to school, so she enrolled in Mountain View Community College. But by the spring of 2019, while attending Mountain View, she lost her housing and was forced to live in her car and couch surf for temporary places to stay.
Jessica applied to UNT Dallas in 2020 as a transfer student and was accepted into the Child Development and Family Studies program in the School of Behavioral Health and Human Services. At UNT Dallas, Jessica found her home. The small campus provided the community feel, connectedness and guidance she needed to thrive and excel in college. Balancing her academic responsibilities with extracurricular activities, to say she became an overachiever is an understatement.
Jessica was elected SGA President in 2021 and reelected in 2022. She also has served as vice president and activities director of the Jax Squad, and president and vice president of the First Generation Club. Jessica was appointed a student regent on the UNT System Board of Regents. She is a member of the Black Student Union, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, and the Sigma Beta Delta honor society. All while maintaining a 3.9 GPA.
In addition, Jessica interned for Black Women in Nonprofit Leadership and Promise House, a Dallas organization that helps homeless children, teens and their families.
Last but not least, Jessica is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar through a federally funded program that recognizes students for their accomplishments, offers academic, social and emotional support, and provides a path toward obtaining a Ph.D.
Once she earns a Ph.D., Jessica hopes to present research to Congress, contribute to policy changes related to foster care, and teach at the university level. Her ultimate goal is to operate her own facility focused on assisting children and youth in need, both under 18 and 18 and over. That’s an important distinction because foster children “age out” of the foster care system when they turn 18, often with nowhere to go.
“People don’t realize if we help this demographic, we help so much more,” said Jessica.
When asked about her greatest strength, Jessica replied, “Adaptability and positivity.” Jessica believes her positive attitude is a “light that draws people” and shows “you can do whatever you want.”
She needed to rely on that trait when applying to Howard University. “I worried I was not good enough. I doubted myself, but went ahead and did it,” Jessica said. She would check her email “50 times a day” hoping for an answer.
One day, she was so anxious and nervous, she called the Howard admissions office as soon as it opened at 8 a.m. to ask about the status of her application. Later, at 3:14 p.m., she received her acceptance email. “It was the only place I applied,” Jessica said. Her hard work at UNT Dallas and her persistence had paid off once again. She was so ecstatic, she noted and now remembers the exact time that much-anticipated email arrived in her inbox.
Dr. Curtis McDowell, a UNT Dallas lecturer who has been a valued mentor for Jessica, believes her experience is truly inspirational. “Her rags to riches story is powerful,” said Dr. McDowell. “It shows when people collaborate at UNT Dallas, amazing things can happen.”
Last week, Jessica took the stage to share her story with attendees of the Advancing Socioeconomic Mobility conference hosted by UNT Dallas at the Statler Hotel. The audience listened intently as she described overcoming hurdles and feeling empowered by her UNT experience.
As Spring 2023 commencement nears, we are proud to celebrate Jessica’s success. She is the definition of a Trailblazer. She exemplifies the university’s mission of empowering students, transforming lives and strengthening communities.