Every good story—at least the ones that keep you turning the pages or thinking about them long after you’ve heard the tale—contains a few key components.
The setting. Characters you can relate to and empathize with. Structure and a plot that holds everything all together.
But one of the most important parts—the one you never forget when you recount the narrative—is the turning point. That moment when truth is revealed, when the plotline shifts.
That moment when everything changes.
For Jackie Cullom, the turning point was a baby, Caesar. And when her son was born, something inside Jackie changed.
Eventually, that changed everything.
TAKING THE FIRST STEP
For years, Jackie had lived in an abusive relationship she felt powerless to leave. She’d given everything to the relationship and couldn’t see a way out. More than that, she didn’t even know if she was worth it.
“When you’re in an abusive situation, you believe what [the abuser] tells you,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to turn to. Everything I had came through him. I just gave my whole life to him. I was in a situation that I felt like I would never be able to walk away from.”
After Caesar was born, Jackie says he got caught in the middle of some of the abuse. That was a big turning point for her.
“It was the first time I felt like I would really die for something,” she said. “I remember saying, ‘You have done this to me, but I’m not going to let you do it to him.’ Before Caesar was born, I never had the courage or the strength to come up with those words or anything to leave him.”
At that point, Jackie and Caesar left with just the clothes on their backs. She immediately went to the police and got some support through the Metro Nashville Police Department’s resources. But then Caesar, who’d been born with a variety of health issues and developmental delays, got sick.
Jackie’s son, who’s now 5, spent the majority of his first three years going in and out of the hospital. Later, when Jackie added up all the hospital stays, she realized Caesar had spent nearly one entire year as an admitted patient.
With limited resources and lacking a strong support system, Jackie knew she had to figure out her next steps.
“It was really taking its toll on me,” she remembers. “I was dealing with the whole situation of us being on our own. Because of all the medical bills and the challenges I was going through with his father to get insurance and things we needed to be in place to sustain his medical care, I ended up having to sell everything I had other than my car. I didn’t have anything or anywhere to go.”
That car soon became home for Jackie and Caesar.
“It was a situation I didn’t see coming,” Jackie says. “Now, I’m homeless and I’m sleeping in my car with my son who has disabilities and was extremely ill most of the time.
“I didn’t think I could really tell anyone what was going on because I felt like if they knew that we didn’t even have a place to live, they would separate us,” she continues. “I knew I needed him, and he needed me. I just kept praying, ‘Lord, you’re going to have to show me how to make this all work, because I can’t see it.’”
As Caesar transitioned out of the hospital and into therapy, Jackie came to another turning point in her life. She realized that to support Caesar, she needed to get a better job—and that meant getting a bachelor’s degree.
So, Jackie started researching programs. She had three prerequisites for the program: a flexible schedule so she could care for her son, an accelerated pace, and it needed to be a face-to-face program at a local Christian university.
Jackie found what she was looking for at Trevecca.
“When I walked through the door, I just felt like this was the place I needed to be,” she says. “Christen [Bugarin] in admissions took my hand and walked me through.”
While Jackie was still hesitant—“Can I do this with everything else going on in my life right now?” she remembers asking—but says Bugarin, an enrollment counselor, and Myron Parks, a student success advisor in Trevecca’s School of Graduate and Continuing Studies (SGCS), helped her to understand the process and listened to her fears and concerns.
“Everybody was willing to fight the fight with me to help me get the degree I wanted,” Jackie says.
By March 2016, she was enrolled in her first class in the bachelor’s program in management and human relations (MHR).
WALKING ON FAITH
While starting the MHR program was a big step in Jackie’s plan to provide a better life for Caesar, it wasn’t an easy goal to pursue. After three months of living in her car, Jackie and Caesar had moved to a homeless shelter.
“After about three months of being in the car, we ended up in a homeless shelter,” Jackie said. “That was difficult, but at least we had a roof over our heads.”
At the same time, Jackie continued taking classes at Trevecca—and did well—but it wasn’t easy.
“I didn’t have access to a computer all the time,” she recalls. “I would have to come up here to campus to use a computer. There were certain times when I would have to explain what was going on because it wasn’t easy to get everything done. But I was never willing to be defeated.”
Money was always an issue. Because of Caesar’s hospitalization and ongoing care, Jackie hadn’t been able to work much since he’d been born. One of the biggest hurdles she had to jump was figuring out how to pay for the program.
“How am I going to pay for this?” she remembers asking. “I got through this whole program by stepping out on faith.”
God also answered Jackie’s prayer, the one she’d prayed back when she decided to go back to school that He would show her how this was going to work. Loans, donations and scholarships all combined to pay Jackie’s tuition as she progressed throughout the program.
Last March, Jackie was named one of the 2017 recipients of an MHR endowment scholarship. Created by a previous cohort, the MHR endowment scholarship is designed to ease the financial burden of adult students. The scholarship allowed Jackie to finish her final classes without having to worry about where the money would come from.
But just because her tuition was paid didn’t mean that finances were easy. Jackie budgeted every bit of the little money she had. Caesar’s care, gas, tuition, groceries—every dollar she earned was allotted. While the budget worked, it left her with little spending money.
And that sometimes made life a little uncomfortable. Trevecca’s MHR program is built on a cohort model, meaning students progress through the curriculum as a group. The model is designed to build community, camaraderie and support—and Jackie’s cohort quickly bonded. During their one-night-a-week class sessions, they’d often pitch in to bring or buy dinner for the whole group.
“We all had our challenges in that class, but they have been amazing,” Jackie says. “I remember that we were going to take up $5 a week for food, and there I was. In my mind, I was like, ‘I don’t have $5.’ They saw me dealing with this. No one said anything at first, and then they just said, ‘Look, Jackie. You don’t have to worry about anything. We’re not going to let you go hungry.”
Jackie’s story would be a good one—maybe even a great one—if it stopped there. But in a way, finishing her bachelor’s degree became another turning point in Jackie’s life.
For Jackie, finishing her degree was the path to making a better life for her son. But her story included a few plot twists she didn’t see coming. One of the biggest was the confidence she gained in herself and her own worth that began to grow as she marched ever closer to finishing her bachelor’s degree.
“I just did not have the confidence that I needed to see what Trevecca saw in me until I came here,” she says. “I realized I really do have something that is meaningful and can contribute to society in a positive way.”
Jackie also realized that her studies had ignited a desire to go even further. She finished her bachelor’s degree on August 5 and began working toward her master’s on August 15. Her ultimate goal is earning her doctorate.
“My end goal is my doctorate,” she says. “I can dream that now because I didn’t believe I could do it on my own. But now I realize I don’t have to do it alone.“
And that—the fact that Jackie’s not alone anymore—is maybe the biggest plot twist she never expected. While Jackie’s struggles aren’t over—Caesar still needs care and Jackie continues to look for more permanent housing and full-time employment—she has found something she never expected at Trevecca: family.
“God answers prayers because we didn’t have a family, and He gave us one,” Jackie says. “Trevecca is my family. He gives us the family He wants us to have, and this is my family.
“[Trevecca] made the difference for me,” she continues. “It’s a population of people that has tremendously changed what I thought about myself, what I can do with my life and definitely how I want to give back in my life.”