JESSIE AWARDED LINCOLN PERSISTENCE AWARD
December 19, 2007 - Harrogate, Tennessee—The path to graduation is often fraught with challenges and obstacles to overcome. It often takes persistence for even the most dedicated of students to complete the journey. Whether it is a challenging class, a financial dilemma or simply life getting in the way, what started as a four-year trek can turn into an expedition that starts and stops over and over again.
One thousand one hundred and seventy students found the persistence to complete their journey on Saturday as Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) conferred associate, baccalaureate and graduate degrees at its Winter Commencement. Over three hundred of them came to Tex Turner Arena in Harrogate, Tennessee, to take their victory lap as they crossed the stage to receive their honors.
Among them was an extraordinary woman whose journey took more persistence than most and whose persistence was celebrated during the Commencement Ceremony. In November of 1999, Debra Jessie was student teaching at Forge Ridge Consolidated School in Claiborne County, Tennessee, while completing her bachelors degree at LMU. At that time her family was given the devastating news that her oldest of three daughters, Leigha, had a hole in her heart and needed surgery as soon as possible. The family was given the option of treating the aliment locally with an invasive surgery which would break through her chest wall or traveling to Nashville and take a chance on a new procedure which was only available at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.
The new procedure had only been in practice for five years and in that time it had only been done on less than 75 infants. Leigha was just shy of her fifth birthday. The doctors would run a camera through her system to see the extent of the hole. While they were looking, they would also try to repair the hole. What the doctors found was a very large hole. So large, they had to use one large coil and one small one to clot the hole. Normally they would just use one coil. Now, when Leigha has a chest x-ray there is a bow on her heart.
“The bow means so much to our family,” Debra said. “Little did we know that this symbol of answered prayers would precede a greater storm.”
Four months after Leigha’s procedure, Debra was diagnosed with three types of breast cancer. The aggressive cancer required immediate treatment. Complicating matters for the Jessies, Debra’s treatment required her to stay in Florida for seven months, leaving her husband William to run the family farm and to care for the children. Through it all, the Jessie family fought hard and Debra became victorious over cancer.
“With my illness, again immediate actions involving the Lord, prayer, family, community and doctors took place,” Debra said. “After a multitude of prayers, surgery and chemo happened prior to Thanksgiving of 2000.”
In February of 2004, William’s National Guard Unit, the 278th, was called up for deployment in Iraq. The unit was sent for training in Mississippi and California. By this time, Debra was teaching high school English at Cumberland Gap High School in Claiborne County, Tennessee. Her husband’s departure left her in charge of the family farm, while teaching fulltime and taking care of the children. The 278th arrived in Iraq in November of 2004.
Like most teachers, Debra decided to go back to school to pursue her masters degree in education (M.Ed.). The advanced degree can make thousands of dollars difference in one’s salary. Impressively, Debra chose to pursue this while her husband was overseas, enrolling in LMU’s M.Ed. program in June of 2005. Throughout William’s deployment, Debra managed to keep life as normal as she could for her children and she managed to complete her M.Ed. in May 2006.
In 2006, with William home from Iraq, both the Jessies were teaching at Cumberland Gap High School when they returned to LMU in the Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) program. But the journey was interrupted again when Debra’s doctor found suspicious cells during a routine check up in February 2007. Further tests confirmed the cells to be cancerous. She entered the hospital for a biopsy and while in recovery, her heart rate plummeted. The doctors worked furiously, and she was miraculously revived.
In April of that year Debra faced her second battle with cancer. It would take another surgery, but she overcame cancer a second time. “My second battle with cancer resulted in what I call radical hysterectomy,” Debra said. “Waking up after being cut from hip to hip, cradled in prayers and love, I knew that would not wear a scar, but a rainbow, a symbol of love and answered prayers.”
Through it all, Debra and her family relied on the support of friends, family and their community. She only missed one class on her way to completing her Ed.S. When she crossed the stage, William was just a few steps behind her completing his victory lap as well.
“Cumberland Gap High School’s walk of love, family and community prayers, teachers and staff at J. Frank White Academy and Powell Valley Elementary School taking on parental roles for my children, good God-fearing collegians and doctors- all of this raised up before the Lord provided me with the means to pull through my adverse situations and complete my goals.”
During the ceremony, LMU President Dr. Nancy B. Moody awarded Debra the Lincoln Persistence Award, which is given to a graduating student who has shown courage under fire by completing their degree.
Lincoln Memorial University is a values-based learning community dedicated to providing educational experiences in the liberal arts and professional studies. The main campus is located in Harrogate, Tennessee. For more information about the undergraduate and graduate programs available at LMU, contact the Office of Admissions at 423-869-6280 or e-mail at email@example.com.
CAPTION: Cumberland Gap High School teacher Debra Jessie was given the Lincoln Persistence Award at LMU’s Winter Commencement. Jessie also earned her Education Specialist degree. On her journey to earn the degree she overcame cancer twice and held her family together while her husband was deployed in Iraq.
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