Beating the odds, Education freshman is ready to make his mark on the world

December 03, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Terrance Jefferson said he views every day of his life as a good day.

“I could have a really horrible day, but at the end of the day I look at myself and I go ‘well, I’m alive, so this was a good day.’ I’m blessed to be where I am now,” Jefferson said. Where he is now — just two years after a failed suicide attempt — is in his freshman year in the Penn State College of Education.

That attempt on his own life came on the heels of some really bad times for Jefferson. Within a three-year time-span, his best friend died in a car accident, and his father was diagnosed with, and later died from, cancer.

“It was a lot. … One day I had decided that life wasn’t worth living anymore,” he said.

When he regained consciousness after his attempt, the first thing he saw was his mother and sister huddled together, crying.

“One of the images that really reminds me of why it’s not a good idea to go back to that place is I could see how terrified my mother looked," said Jefferson. "My mom was in mental pain, but it was such a great pain that it was causing her physical pain. I shouldn’t do that to my mother. And, I did it. I did it for selfish reasons.

“My mom looked at me and she didn’t ask me if I was all right cause she already knew I wasn’t. She said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I truly didn’t know. I looked at her and I said, ‘I’m not going to do this again.’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘I’m gonna hold you to that.’ And I’m glad she doesn’t really have to put a whole lot of effort into doing that anymore.”

Jefferson, who grew up just outside of Harrisburg in Middletown, said it was at that moment that he realized that as weak as he felt, he had to be strong for them.

“It was difficult. It took a lot of conversations, a lot of positive self-regard, a lot of self-coaching and encouragement to remind myself that, you know, every day is worth living,” he said.

Although Jefferson felt a strong desire to be there to take care of his mother and sister, they pushed him to leave home to go to college, so he could do something better for himself. “And you know, I’m glad they did,” he said.

Jefferson’s parents instilled a love of learning in their children, and made them understand that it’s OK to be smart. Jefferson says he excelled, in spite of the odds.

“I come from a very, very white community. I was one of three black male students in my grade. It’s kind of odd to look around and see that out of a hundred students, three of them look like you. But it’s the reason that I wanted to get into education,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said that he felt he was always meant to be different.

“I think that it is abnormal to see an African American male walk into the doors of the College of Education and say, ‘I want to teach.’ That’s something that throws people off,” he said.

Jefferson did not have any African American teachers until he came to Penn State, and he said that’s something he wants to change, by becoming a teacher and letting students who look like him, and come from similar circumstances, know that they are not alone.

“I know that if I would’ve had someone that I could talk to, that could relate to where I’ve been, it would’ve made going to school a lot easier,” Jefferson said. “And to think that I can do that for other students and all I have to do is teach? That sounds so simple. And I know it’s much more complicated than that, but that’s really the fact of the matter.”

Jefferson said he was excited when he received his offer of admission to Penn State — on his mother’s birthday — but still, there was the question of how to pay for school.

“Just a few days later I got an email from the College of Education Multicultural Programs Office about a merit scholarship for $9,000 a year for four years,” Jefferson said. “And then I got another email about the John Gilmartin Trustee Scholarship, which is $3,000 a semester, $6,000 a year. That adds up to almost the half the tuition. And that makes it a lot easier.”

Jefferson said the number to express the chances that someone with his life experiences and his socioeconomic status coming to Penn State “takes 56 zeros after a decimal point on a calculator before we can even express the first non-zero number.”

And yet, he said, he’s here, in a place that believes in his goals.

“How can you conceptualize the idea that somebody else sees the same thing that you see and says, ‘you know what, we’ll cover it. Just show up,’” he asked. “This is an accredited Big Ten school. This is a world-famous school. They have the largest alumni network and the most enhanced programs.”

Jefferson said he values not only the education he’s getting in the College of Education, but also the added value that comes with a Penn State degree.

“I’m at a school that isn’t just a good school to show up to. It’s a school that’s equipped to help me after I get out of here," he said. "After I graduate, Penn State has resources for me to end up somewhere. Through Penn State, I met a Penn State grad who’s a teacher in the New York City School District. He told me that after I graduate, if I’m looking for a job and they have an opening to come see them and say, ‘I’m here to see David about a job.’ That means the world to me.

“That’s crazy," he continued. "The math says I’m not supposed to be here, and yet here I am. And I’m ready to make an impact and a change on the world around me.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 03, 2019