Grad achieves lifelong goal, sets example for family and tribe

For Lauren Jennings, of Henning, completing her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Tennessee at Martin was not only a point of pride for her family, but also her entire tribe. As a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and living on the only Native American reservation in the state of Tennessee, Jennings has received significant support from her fellow tribe members and the Native American Indian Association during her time as a student.

After graduating high school, Jennings went through many life changes that did not allow her to finish her education right away. With raising four children, one with special needs, and working full-time, traditional in-person education was just not possible. She knew that she wanted to fulfill this goal not only for herself but also set an example for her family.

“I wanted my kids to see that their mom went to college, their mom graduated, and if she could do it with all of us then we could do it too,” she said.

Jennings was looking for a program that offered an online degree with flexible course schedules to fit her busy life schedule and found that through UT Martin’s online degree programs. She had previously attended UT Martin through the Ripley Center and reached out again to register for the fall 2021 semester. Her praise for the staff and faculty at the Ripley Center not only included their assistance in setting up her online class schedules but also in finding scholarships and grants for her to help offset the cost of attendance.

Providing her children with a better life was one of Jennings’ main motivations for earning her degree. “I just want them to realize how important education is, and that there are more opportunities with a degree,” Jennings said. When her mother’s family moved to Tennessee from the main reservation in Mississippi, she had to help with sharecropping and was unable to finish high school. Jennings noted that her mother has been one of her biggest supporters during this process and is extremely proud of her accomplishments as she is the first member of the family to obtain a post-secondary degree. Her family made sure to encourage her to participate in the commencement ceremonies to celebrate this achievement.

Celebrating her achievement were (back row) husband, Barry, and son Kayden Neal; (front row l, r) son Elijah Neal, Jennings, son Kyren, daughter-in-law, Lillianna Morgan; and (front) daughter, Adyson.

Celebrating her achievement were (back row) husband, Barry, and son Kayden Neal; (front row l, r) son Elijah Neal, Jennings, son Kyren, daughter-in-law, Lillianna Morgan; and (front) daughter, Adyson.

“I was very excited and thought I deserved it because of my hard work and dedication,” Jennings laughs. Jennings and her family attended the spring commencement ceremony held on Saturday, May 7, to celebrate her graduation.

Jennings currently works at Best Way Petroleum in Ripley and has recently been promoted now that she has earned a bachelor’s degree. “I am excited to apply myself in new ways and provide for my family.” Eventually, she would like to return to school and work toward a master’s degree. “I want to be an example for my kids and the people in our tribe to know that it is possible to work for your education,” she said.

She would like everyone to know that it is never too late to fulfill lifelong goals. “I have been in-and-out of school since I was 18 and I am almost 40, so it is truly never too late.”

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