After more than 20 years of putting the needs of her family before her college aspirations, Kenji Jones has earned her Master of Science in Marital and Family Therapy with honors from California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), despite the sorrow of losing four close family members just prior to beginning graduate school in 2012.
Jones, who graduated summa cum laude, experienced her first educational setback after graduating from high school in 1993. She had begun attending college and pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse, but a year into her studies her aunt gave birth to a baby boy whom she couldn’t care for.
“My grandmother asked me to help raise my baby cousin, so I dropped out of college in 1994 and never looked back. I did what I had to do to help my family,” said Jones, who is 39 years old and lives in Los Angeles. “I never went back to college. I continued to work, and thought, “this is the way it’s going to be.’”
Fifteen years later, working as a phlebotomist (one who draws blood for medical testing) for Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center (County/USC), Jones did make it back to college, and was valedictorian of her graduating class at Los Angeles Southwest College. She transferred to CSUDH in 2009, and in 2011, she earned her bachelor’s degree with honors (cum laude) in psychology with a minor in sociology.
After graduation, with renewed hopes of realizing her dream of becoming a nurse, Jones applied for a County/USC program that offered monetary support for employee parents who wanted to become registered nurses.
“‘This is my second chance,’” the mother of two thought. “So I went through the entire process of applying, testing and interviewing. In August 2011 they told me I was accepted. Another thing they told me was that I’d have to commit to the program because I’d be working and going to school at the same time.”
A Difficult Time
However, Jones believed that such a commitment would be too difficult. In 2011, she was not only raising two teenage boys, she was also caring for her ailing mother and grandmother at home while working full-time and assisting another relative caring for an ailing aunt and uncle.
“My kids helped when they could and my dad was a big support, but I was taking care of them for the most part,” she said. “I eventually had to tell the nursing program that I couldn’t commit because I knew my grandmother was sick.”
“My grandmother was very upset with me when I told her I was not going to nursing school. She had felt I had sacrificed once before, and to do it again—she was just not happy. I told her ‘Things happen for a reason and I’m not going to stop going to school, I’ll just find another way.’”
The five months that followed proved to be the most difficult and painful time for Jones and her family. In October 2011, her grandmother passed away, followed by her mother in November, her aunt in January 2012, and uncle in February.
“With all of the deaths we faced it was difficult for me, but even more difficult for my kids because it wasn’t just my pain but theirs as well, the loss was both unexpected and huge to the entire family” said Jones. “We were all really close.”
One of Jones’ sons is culminating to high school, while her oldest, Kendrick, is currently a sophomore attending CSUDH and studying child development with plans of becoming an elementary school teacher.
“My mom gets a lot of her strength from her personal experiences. Just the things that she had to go through to get her master’s degree is proof enough. The patience she displayed while caring for my relatives really added to her strength in a lot of ways,” said Kendrick. “A week after we were planning for my great-grandmother’s funeral services we found out that her sister was going to pass away due to cancer. My mom’s strength and patience really stood out then, as she encouraged us to motivate one another. She is also a very positive person, which is something that I’ve learned from her.”
Jones was able to return to CSUDH in 2012 to begin the master’s degree program in marital and family therapy, a field she became interested in while caring for her loved ones. She quickly found an internship at an agency that works with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health while still working as a phlebotomist, a job she left in 2014.
“During the very first year of the master’s program one of my professors told me about an agency that I could apply to that had positions in the mental health field for individual with bachelor’s degrees,” she said. “So I applied and did my internship there, which turned into a temporary position, and is now my full-time job.
“The agency has been extremely supportive throughout my graduate school journey. They’re just waiting for my degree to post so I can get a promotion to begin doing mental health work as a clinician,” she added. “I look forward to getting more experience in the mental health field, and kind of feeling my way around to see where my passion really lies.”