"If my Hammond High School teachers could see me now ..."
"If they [discover] I'm going to Johns Hopkins, they're going to be like, 'What? Jennie Wang? Really?' In high school, I was the worst student ever," said Wang, 22, who also became pregnant shortly after graduating from high school, leaving her estranged from her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. with her from China when she was 10.
Determined to dispel stigmas attached to young single mothers, Wang excelled at HCC, eventually becoming student government president and vice president of Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society for students at two-year colleges. She graduated from HCC on Tuesday with associate degrees in international business and business administration.
Wang's was among the 1,171 degrees and certificates earned this year at HCC, which graduated the largest class in its 41-year history.
She juggled motherhood and schoolwork while running her own business as a licensed wholesaler of energy and home services, and was recently accepted into Hopkins' Carey School of Business.
"The Hopkins journey is kind of crazy. I never thought, in high school, that there was any way that I would ever get into Hopkins," said Wang. "I didn't know how to balance personal life with taking care of a baby and going to school. My teachers believed in me more than I believed in myself. They pushed me harder than I thought I could push myself. They got me to do better in school."
Wang said that after her pregnancy, her relationship with her parents became so strained that she ultimately moved out of her Columbia home and did not speak with her mother and father for about six months.
But their broken relationship began to mend, she said, after she enrolled at HCC, and with the birth of her daughter, Taliya, now 3, Wang says her family has become close-knit again.
The experience led her to become an advocate for college students who are single mothers. She also joined hundreds of community college students across the state to petition lawmakers in February to boost funding for two-year schools.
"Jennie has faced a lot of adversity in her life, yet she has this incredible sense of self that really has helped see her through some challenges," said HCC President Kathleen Hetherington. "When I look at the leaders of the college in the years that I've been here, Jennie stands out as being truly exceptional."
Wang speaks out for single mothers in college by stressing the importance of child care. It's one of the main factors determining whether community college students with children will be able to earn degrees, she said, and HCC's on-campus Children's Learning Center was one of the reasons she attended the school.
"Being involved in the [HCC] Honors Program made me think that if I can do it, then there are other mothers who are struggling who, with the right mentorship, can do it, too," said Wang, who became a peer mentor for pregnant mothers while at HCC.
"I mentor [HCC] mothers who are struggling," Wang said. "For the ones who are struggling, I tell them, 'Look, just because you have a kid doesn't mean you have to struggle in school, or in life in general.'"
After Tuesday's graduation, Wang looked forward to the challenges ahead.
"I'm excited that I finished, but I'm sad that I'm leaving. This has been the best school I've ever attended," said Wang. "I know that I'm starting a new chapter in my life."