Student Spotlight: Jessica Sims

March 23, 2020

Jessica Sims is a senior English major and the recipient of the Black History in the Making Award for 2020. She’s a non-traditional student who loves reading, writing poetry and other forms of creative writing, loves music, enjoys trying her hand at photography, and loves “being the best single mom to a vivacious 9-year old that I can be.” She’s considering getting her masters so that she can be a teacher at the secondary level, but says “I will have to see what the future holds for me!”

Jessica Sims with a stack of books held up next to her faceCongratulations, Jessica, on receiving the Black History in the Making Award this year! Professors in the English department mentioned that your written work is “beautiful and thoughtful,” and you are a “keen thinker” with “diverse interests” and a “quick sense of humor.” What does this award mean to you?

I’ve got to admit I was totally thrown off, in a good way, when Prof. Dale Smith called me into his office to tell me the good news. I don’t think ‘shocked’ is the appropriate adjective; maybe more like “gratefully overwhelmed with emotion” when the recognition was proffered. I’ve never felt a surge of emotions like when I let my family know the good news. I know everyone wanted to attend the ceremony, but with my grandmother on my dad’s side in hospice care, I knew that it probably wouldn’t be feasible. Instead, I went to hang out with her, like I try to do every weekend, and while I was there, my dad gave me a book entitled If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement by Dorothy F. Cotton. Apparently, she and my late grandfather were steadfast friends and Civil Rights advocates. I think that once we all learned that I was going to receive such an honorable award, I was officially set on my path to what I’m meant to do (write...ANYTHING) and where I’m supposed to go (to the stars).

At the Black History in the Making Award Night, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom addressed the recipients of the award and spoke about the importance of small, daily choices. Did that resonate with you? 

I absolutely loved everything that Dr. Cottom said in her speech! Her story seemed parallel to mine in so many ways and I was so glad that she chose to share those small glimpses of her life with us. I think that small daily choices are essential to everyone and I even think that people who are incoming freshmen, starting a new job or career, formerly incarcerated, getting clean and going into rehab, powering through a new health diagnosis, or even starting on day 1 of anything should hear that speech and roll with it. I believe that everything put before us is a test and how it goes afterward depends on HOW you channel your energy. Dr. Cottom y’all...plain and simply put: SHE DID THAT! 

Did you always know you wanted to study English? What made you decide to be an English major?

I had been down this road of secondary education in the past and, as odd as it may sound, I had the same exact issue then that I did this time around—a focus area. Ever since I was a child, I loved everything having to do with teaching. There were times when I would set up my stuffed animals all around me and pull out the chalkboard (does anybody remember that besides me) to “teach” them. A lot of the seniors in my high school graduating class had applied for VCU, and while they were accepted, I had 99% convinced myself that I would never make it at VCU. All I saw was a huge university smack dab in the middle of a busy city that I knew very little of, so instead of applying at VCU, I tried VSU. 

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that not only was I discouraged because I was trying to do what everyone else wanted me to do but I wasn’t at my happiest place. Back then, (many moons ago) I started as a psychology major, then I switched to elementary education, and then I went into the loving arms of the English department. The only problem was that I wasn’t ready for school. I can admit that I slacked off, missed a lot of classes, and I just couldn’t find myself then. I left with my good graces, worked full time, and a few years later, I had my daughter. Something in me sparked after I had her. The pull to do something bigger and better was deep—deep enough that I started back up at JTCC and got my associate degree in Early Childhood Development. After that, I was like, “well, what’s next?” I can’t remember who or what pulled me in, but somehow or another, VCU beckoned to me, called me up and said, “hey, give it a shot. You can do this. You’ve worked at your own pace so far, so let’s keep going at it together.” I guess I gave it a shot. 

At first, I came on campus as a Liberal Studies Early Elementary (LSEE) major, and I took ONE class that was off the list of the major requirements (shameless plug: ENGL 305 Writing Poetry with Prof. Leslie Shiel) and my true meaning was clear. After that one semester, I revamped everything. I think I even sat down and talked with Prof. Shiel about it a little, but I knew in my heart that English was where I was needed/wanted. I changed my major that year and I haven’t looked back since.

What do you like to read outside of class? 

Too many different things! Since I switched to being an English major,  I’ve gained a new appreciation for sci-fi novels, fantasy, and memoirs. I think my biggest takeaway is finding black authors that aren’t in the canon...some older names and some new ones too!!!

Jessica Sims and her daughter with wildflowers in their hairCan you speak to the challenges of being a parent and a student?

Honestly, every day is a new battle. I had to learn to do my classwork ONLY after her schoolwork was done, dinner fixed, and after coming home from work. We’re talking past 200 pages some nights. Papers. Discussion boards. Blackboard readings. Presentations. All of it. A few people have met my daughter because I’ve had to charge up the iPad and drag her to Cabell, Shafer, etc. to get some presentation fixed up but every single one of my peers was cool about it (thanks y’all!!) and it made a huge impact on my work here. I always had a kind of hang-up over the fact that I might’ve been the only student with a kid in my classes: why, I don’t know. Every professor I’ve ever mentioned it to has been welcoming and understanding of my life. I think she has even been offered snacks and fist pounds for being so amazing during classes that she has had to visit with me. 

I look at her often—just like how I’m looking at her through my window right now: the wind playing in her bronzed braids while she picks buttercups to see if I really, really like butter, chasing butterflies and catching candy apple ladybugs, and I wonder where the hell I would be without her. Without her picking me as her mom, I might’ve never gotten that urge to do more. I feel like I would’ve stayed complacent and stagnant while never attempting to do any more than I had to. She makes me fight the negativity and break the curses that have plagued my family for generations, all while hunting for those elusive four leaf clovers and frogs, painting fingernails and reading snippets of Harry Potter and Dogman (I’m trying y’all…). She motivates me more than anything, and for that, I’m forever grateful to her. 

Thanks for catching up with us, Jessica! We can't wait to see where you go from here.