February Extraordinary Leader: The Climate Change Warrior

Jackson keeps this photo of her family on her computer save screen. Left to right is her mom, Joanne; Kennedy; her sister, McKinley, 9; her sister, Makenzie, 19; and her dad, Michael.

A few months back, Kennedy Jackson wore a mask at least once a week.

She was taking a scuba diving class at the Millis Center pool, and sometimes, she had to keep her nerves in check.

But she knows she needs to learn how to scuba dive if she wants to become a marine biologist. So, she goes to the pool, puts on her gear and hears her instructor say, “Take your time. It’s not a race.”

Then, she’s OK. The growth mindset lessons she’s learned at High Point University, she says, have helped. She’s not so afraid of math, she’s not so afraid to talk to people at multicultural mixers and she’s not afraid to take a scuba diving class.

“It’s growth mindset, people,” she tells her friends.

Jackson, a junior biology major from Mitchellville, Maryland, is one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of February.

She’s a Presidential Scholar, she’s won various academic awards, and she’s president of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, Inc. She’s also vice president of the Black Cultural Awareness organization, as well as the academic chair of the university’s Student Government Association.

And she discovered a fossil. Let’s start there.


‘My Little Tooth’

Jackson holds a fossilized tooth of a Hyopsodus that she found during an HPU research trip to Wyoming.

Jackson just wanted to find something.

She was working as a student researcher with Dr. Christian George, an assistant biology professor at HPU, and she was participating in the university’s acclaimed Summer Undergraduate Research Program in the Sciences, better known as SuRPS.

Her research took her to a place she’s never been before – Wyoming.

George showed Jackson and a few other student researchers how environmental change affected mammals during the evolutionary history of life on Earth.

Two summers ago, George took Jackson and a few other students to north central Wyoming to look for mammalian fossils in a well-known, fossil-finding spot known as Bighorn Basin.

It was the summer after Jackson’s freshman year, and she went to Bighorn Basin for two weeks. It’s a desolate region, where the sky feels wide open. One day, after spending an afternoon looking for fossils, Jackson sat down and told herself, “I’m not going to find anything.”

Then, she looked down.

She saw something shiny, she picked it up and got a closer look.

She found a tooth of a Hyopsodus, a weasel-looking creature that lived millions of years ago.

Jackson laughs about the serendipity of her story now — sitting down, despondent over finding nothing and looking down to find a fossil right at her feet.

“My little tooth,” Jackson says today.

Yet, still a big discovery.


Jackson’s paternal grandmother, Essie Jackson (seated), was a big influence in her life. From left to right, in this 2015 photo, is Kennedy; McKinley in her grandmother’s lap; and Makenzie.

Lessons From Granny

Jackson is still helping Dr. George with his research because she’s interested in studying climate change and how it affects the oceans. After she graduates next year, Jackson wants to go to graduate school to pursue her doctorate in marine science.

Ask her about that, and she’ll mention her senior project in high school on marine biology, and she’ll open up her project’s PowerPoint presentation on her laptop. The first slide shows a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

“Knowledge is power,” Jackson says. “My aunt told me that, and that’s important, especially as a black person. When you have knowledge to back up your facts, no one can prove you wrong.”

Jackson then mentions her paternal grandmother, Essie Jackson. She grew up in Mississippi as the oldest of 22 brothers and sisters. sShe went no further than the eighth grade because she had to provide for her family. She became a sharecropper.

Jackson called her “Granny.”

“Having her in my life helped me understand the value of knowledge and how important it is to know your own history,” she says. “She also talked about how to be caring, kind and compassionate to others even when the others aren’t kind and compassionate to you. She was big on that.”

Jackson took those lessons to heart.


Finding Her Worth

Jackson, in the brown jumpsuit in front, has walked for charity and built homes with her members of Alpha Phi Omega.

With Alpha Phi Omega, HPU’s service fraternity, Jackson has walked for charity and weeded and cultivated community gardens. She has visited area animal shelters and tutored students in math and English. And she has worked with Habitat for Humanity building homes for low-income families.

With Genesis Gospel Choir, she found friends and sang spirituals that made her cry.

With Zeta Phi Beta, she found more friends and discovered the value of sisterhood.

With the VOICE Student Advisory Board, she helped create what she called a “brave space” so students could share their story.

With Black Cultural Awareness, better known as BCA, she helped herself and others understand their story. BCA holds events during Black History Month and beyond, organized by Jackson and the other group members.

Jackson is president of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, Inc.

In doing so, she followed her grandmother’s advice. She learned how to appreciate her history. She also learned to appreciate herself.

“Being at High Point helped me realize I was worth more than I thought I was worth,” she says. “Being shy, I always thought, ‘I can’t do half of those leadership roles.’ I had a long list of stuff I wanted to do. I applied, and I got it.

“Now, I’m a different person since my freshman year. My Dad used to say I had tunnel vision. Now, my Dad says I’ve changed. High Point helped me see different perspectives, and I’ve learned to walk in other people’s shoes.”


Beyond The Snow Globe

LaNita Williams, the circulation manager for the Smith Library, is BCA’s advisor. She’s gotten to know Jackson through Jackson’s work at the library. Williams singled out Jackson for the Library Hero Award because of her diligence of getting to work even during a bad snowstorm.

Jackson received a certificate and a snow globe made by Williams, complete with a snowman, purple glitter and a purple ribbon around a glass vase.

Jackson keeps both at her home in Maryland. But she keeps the snow globe on her desk. She wants to be able to see it every chance she gets.

Jackson, in the yellow Crocs on the lower right, gathered with her sorority members of Alpha Phi Omega a cart full of rice and beans for local families.

Jackson is now a senior student assistant, a leadership position in the library. She earned it.

“Kennedy is a very responsible and mature young lady,” Williams says. “She takes everything so seriously. And you know, she’s so busy. I tell her ‘Make sure you take care of yourself,’ and she says, ‘I’m good.’ She’s always smiling.”

Jackson inherited empathy and her work ethic from her family. She is the oldest of three daughters. Her dad distributes hospital supplies for a pharmaceutical company, and her mom works as the director of annual giving at the University of Maryland-College Park.

Then, there is her grandmother.


“One of her big things was always be compassionate,” Jackson says. “Always help people in need or who could be in need.”

Jackson’s voice falters, and she wipes the tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater. She lost her Granny in December. She was 91.

“It’s still kind of fresh,” Jackson says barely above a whisper. “I miss her.”

Share Button

Related Posts