By Guest Contributor Jacqueline Pecker
Jackie is a graduate of Palm Beach State College with an Associate of Arts. She is a member of the the 2023 All-USA Academic Team, Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholar and TEK Productions Scholar. At PBSC, she received the 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award in the student category.
During a difficult time in my life where I struggled with my mental health, I often wondered, “Why did my mental health have to take me out of university?” I had just started the first year of my bachelor’s degree.
But now, three years later, having graduated with my associate’s degree from my community college, I’ve made peace with the uninvited visitor that knocked on the door to my mind. I know now that it was there to answer my question and provide me a new sense of direction.
After high school, my peers immediately began the transfer process to a university. So, of course, I followed suit because it’s what I was taught. Any time someone mentioned that they were transferring to community college, there was never a fully positive tone.
“I’m just going to community college,” or, “It sounds bad, but I’m going to community college first to save money.” I assumed, based on those insinuations, that community college was a “bad thing,” so I applied to my local university.
After one semester of excelling in classes at my new university, life started to crumble. I became preoccupied with the smallest issues, and then they began to affect my academics. It became harder to concentrate in class.
Recurring negative thoughts would distract me, making it impossible to take notes, answer questions or study. I sought out help, and I received a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Performing well in school was impossible, so I dropped out of university to take time to work on myself.
A year of hard work with my therapist passed by, and life started to feel clearer. One day, she asked the question that brought my life to where it is today. “Do you feel ready to go back to school?” I felt unsure, but I had made significant progress, so it was time to get back on track.
The simple word “yes,” opened my path to the benefits of community college and this vantage point where I can now tell fellow students that it isn’t “just community college.” It’s much more than that.
During my first days, I met with many fellow students who showed me how to make the most of the resources I would encounter in community college. The first was the organization that changed my life: Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
After attending my first meeting, an impactful group of students and a team of advisors welcomed the transforming me with open arms. I later came to know them as my PTK family.
PTK was where I found my spark for leadership. It’s also the organization where I discovered the benefits of community college that I wish more students would see.
It was this community that helped me discover how to transform my mental health story into a driving force for leadership. With the newfound strength I gained in my PTK chapter, I ran for my chapter’s public relations officer, and they elected me. Later, I also became chapter president.
Both roles have been the ultimate chance to get my first experience with leadership, and they have played a crucial role in my self-development.
Through my involvement as a PTK officer, I’ve had a wealth of opportunities to develop my leadership skills via public speaking, event coordination, research, fellowship events and project planning. With each facet of my involvement, my self-confidence has flourished as I transcended the difficulties of mental illness.
As chapter president, I spearheaded our chapter’s “Let’s Press ‘Paws’” initiative – our Honors in Action project focused on Nostalgia as Play. A play on my community college’s panther mascot, “Paws” to encourage students to press the pause button on their demanding lives by engaging in nostalgic, therapeutic activities.
This year, our chapter has hosted art therapy events, game nights, a therapy dog session, sunrise journaling events, surf lessons at our local beach, guided writing exercises, and interactive discussions. These activities were intended to bring peace and emphasize the importance of mental health awareness in our community. Encouraging others to learn about this cause through leadership in PTK has helped me with my own struggles.
PTK has helped in every aspect of my life as a student – mentally, professionally and financially. As I near my transfer to a university, I recognize the importance of funding my education. PTK has played an indispensable role in allowing me to continue to the next step of my journey.
As a member, I have had the privilege of being awarded three PTK scholarships. These scholarships not only supported me financially but also connected me to a fellowship of students who share a similar vision for their futures.
I found my most treasured connection amongst my fellow PTK scholars on the 2023 All-USA Academic Team – a group of students awarded by Cengage and PTK based on their commitment to their studies and helping their communities. Being able to connect with these like-minded students from across the U.S. made me realize the powerful connections that PTK forges between students.
I understand that, at first glance, it’s easy to see involvement in PTK as a mere bullet line on a resume. However, your experience reflects the efforts you put in to get involved as a leader and develop meaningful bonds with your fellow students. Being an international honor society, PTK provides many opportunities to connect with other students from within your region and throughout the world.
What really put this big, but small world feeling into perspective for me was PTK Catalyst, my most memorable experience as a PTK member. Being able to travel to Colorado and Ohio to celebrate my chapter’s accomplishments along with my own personal successes felt like I finally made it. From feeling trapped in my own head three years ago to basking in the liberation of walking on the Catalyst stage in the Scholar Parade was the ultimate full-circle moment for me.
PTK has been the epitome of my community college experience. When I look back on my graduation, as I prepare to transfer to a university this fall, the memories I made with my PTK chapter start flooding in. No matter the stigma that surrounds community college, my experience has proven its worth as a place for people like me, who may have felt a loss of direction and are looking for a new path to trailblaze and make their own.
Even though it once seemed impossible, I knew I couldn’t let mental illness take over my life. I decided to use my community college education as my stepping stone to turn my life around. I sought every opportunity to teach myself I was stronger than the mental health struggles I faced. Now, as I consider that question, “Why did my mental health have to take me out of university?” I have my answer.
I know that I was meant to see how community college was my true calling to get my life back on track, and PTK was the catalyst. The experiences and community I encountered in PTK lifted me back up and provided me with the opportunity to do the same for others. Whether you’re a new PTK member or have been one for a while, now is the time to find your calling within PTK.
Read more about Jackie’s community college story here.