Graduating Student Spotlight – Jessie Smith

Mr. Smith

Throughout high school, Jessie Smith saved his money, carefully setting it aside to pay for his college education. But when his father was diagnosed with – and ultimately passed away from – pancreatic cancer, his financial priorities shifted.

“I lost my father when I was 17 years old,” he says. “Before he died, I’d promised him I would get a college education. However, after he passed away, I gave the money I had put aside for my college tuition to my mother to help her pay for the financial hardships we endured following my father’s death.”

Smith graduated from Lamar High School in 2007 and started working full time while taking a few classes at the University of Houston – Downtown. But it wasn’t how he wanted to experience college life.

“I felt something was missing, and a visit one day to UH changed me,” he said. “I sat in on a friend’s class, and I immediately noticed the dynamics of the classroom. Seeing the diversity among the students, and visiting areas throughout the campus made me decide I wanted to become a Coog.”

It was difficult financially for him to transfer to UH in 2009, but he was awarded the Beatrice and Jesse Mladenka-Fowler Scholarship which, along with continuing to work full time and receiving grants, helped him cover many of his expenses as he majored in religious studies.

“What I most admired about Jessie was his persistence,” says his academic advisor, Tamara Cobb. “He never gave up. He diligently worked to pass his courses and always stayed calm in the middle of all of his responsibilities.”

“I grew up in traditional Christian household, but I always wanted to study other faiths,” Smith says. “I have a strong interest in the psychological and moral roles that faith plays in society. Throughout my time at UH I have studied Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoisim, Africana Spirituality, and more.”

His interest in humanity’s search for meaning through spiritual practice is rounded out by an interest in social justice work. As a UH student, he has served as president and juvenile justice chair of the UH chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a CLASS Student Government Association senator, marketing assistant director of the annual Frontier Fiesta celebration and several other campus leadership roles.

“This was one of the reasons I came to UH – I wanted to make a difference on the campus,” he says.

Smith and his mother are members of Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church, one of the largest Methodist churches in the world. He approached church administrators about using what he was learning in his religious studies courses as an intern at the church. He was hired and appointed to be the Young Adult Ministry intern.

The work has allowed him to come full circle back to where his own college journey began.

“I’m working on ‘Power Up,’ a program that works with high school seniors to help with their transition into the next phase of life,” Smith says.

With graduation on the horizon, Smith is planning on spending 2016 doing domestic or international missionary work before applying to graduate schools. It’s a bright future that would make his father proud.

“I kept my word to him,” he says, “and will graduate from college this December.”

- By Monica Byars