Best & Brightest: ‘I Had to Succeed’

No one would fault Jemima Pierre-Jacques if she decided to put off her studies this past spring semester at Prince George’s Community College.

The native Haitian was mourning the loss of her father, Jude Pierre-Jacques, and eight other relatives in Port-au-Prince, casualties along with thousands of the 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti in January. 

But school became her refuge, and her father— a second grade teacher who died in his classroom with all of his students — became her motivation.

“The earthquake struck [shortly] before school started,” Pierre-Jacques says. “Taking a semester off could have cost me my scholarship and the opportunity to attend Howard University. My father devoted his entire life to education. He would not have wanted me to take time off. I had to succeed.”

Pierre-Jacques, a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and an All-USA Academic Team nominee, graduated from Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., last month with an associate degree in general studies and is starting later this month on her nursing degree from Howard.

“The thing that I find most remarkable about Jemima is how strong she has been in the face of such devastating news,” says Dr. Melinda J. Frederick, the Honors Academy coordinator for Prince George’s Community College and Pierre-Jacques’ mentor. “Beset with very tragic circumstances in Haiti, I started to think about all the things Jemima needed to do instead of going to school. [But] Jemima wanted to come back because it gave her an opportunity to focus on something else.”

When Pierre-Jacques came to the United States in 2007, friends told her mother to enroll her in high school. But Pierre-Jacques, who had graduated high school in Haiti, refused.

“I told them that I wanted to go to college. I took the entrance test at Prince George’s. I scored an 81 over 100. Not bad,” she says.

Pierre-Jacques planned to study nursing at the community college until she was accepted into its Honors Academy. The competitive program provides full academic scholarship and dual admission to one of eight partnering four-year institutions to select students who have demonstrated outstanding academic achievement, integrity, leadership and service to the college and community.

“Jemima had already completed five honors courses with a cumulative grade-point average of 3.77 at the time of her admission, demonstrating her qualifications for the Honors Academy,” Frederick says.

Pierre-Jacques also served as a tutor in developmental math and English for foreign-born students and as a mentor in the college’s International Education Center. 

Despite her many accomplishments, Pierre-Jacques understands that her greatest challenges lie ahead of her. Graduating from Howard is at the top of her list of goals to achieve along with finding closure in her father’s death.

“We are still not over it,” says Pierre-Jacques, speaking for herself and her sister. “We know he’s dead, but we feel like we are in a nightmare and we might wake up.”

During the graduation, Pierre-Jacques was recognized many times by faculty for her resilience. 

“I was very surprised when the commencement speaker, James E. Lyons, secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, asked me to stand up so he could recognize my effort. I have not met him before,” Pierre-Jacques says.  “But I dedicate all these awards I have received to my father and my mom who has worked tirelessly work to help me reach my goals.”