Dedicating degree to memory of her heroic son
By Karen Fernau
Special to GCU News Bureau
When Meloney Jefferson began working toward a psychology degree, the single mother expected a bumpy road juggling studies, work, Little League and mealtime.
“I knew it would be hard but never knew how hard,” said Jefferson, an elementary school secretary from Belton, a central Texas city of about 20,000.
In June 2015, two weeks into her first class as a nontraditional student at Grand Canyon University, Jefferson hit a bump the size of Camelback Mountain. She feared she would be forced to drop out.
Jefferson’s fourth-grade son, Jace, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Reeling, she called Zach Beck, a GCU online enrollment counselor in central Texas, from a children’s hospital in Houston.
“Jace was flown by air ambulance to the hospital four hours from our home. Before we left, I grabbed some clothes and my laptop for school,” she said.
“I really didn’t want to give up my goal of a college degree but told Zach I was too overwhelmed to do any schoolwork.”
Beck understood but encouraged Jefferson to take a two-week, GCU-sanctioned break. So did Jace.
She took their advice, and on Friday will receive a degree in Psychology, an achievement she’ll dedicate to the memory of Jace.
The son who pushed her to graduate died Nov. 11, 2016.
“I had to say goodbye to my hero,” she said. “God had a different plan for him and needed him in heaven. It was hard, the hardest thing I had ever had to do, but I knew that at that moment I would walk across the stage for my angel.
“Every psychology class, every paper I wrote, and every late night with tears and discussion were for him.”
For Jefferson, GCU and Jace are braided together. They will remain so always. She can’t talk about one without the other.
She tells the story of both only to honor Jace, a kid who never met a stranger.
“This is not about me,” said Jefferson, 35. “Jace was an incredible person, so compassionate, so brave. This is his story, and it just happens to overlap with my journey at GCU.”
The Jace/GCU story began in April 2015 when Beck dropped by Jefferson’s office with information about online master’s degree programs for educators.
Jefferson always planned to become a teacher but had yet to commit to finishing college.
With Beck’s encouragement, she enrolled in GCU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“I believe Zach was placed by God in my path at the right time. If he had come to my school after Jace was diagnosed, there is no way I would have enrolled,” she admitted.
From the get-go, Jace encouraged his mother to succeed at GCU with the same enthusiasm she parented Jace and daughter Mecca, now 8.
“My son loved the idea of me being a teacher. When I told him I was going back to school, his eyes twinkled,” Meloney said.
Her first class was Christian Worldview. “Boy, was God putting me in that class for a reason.”
Shortly after starting the class, Jace was sidelined by skull-pounding headaches. At first, doctors suspected a sinus infection or maybe poor vision.
An eye doctor, however, noticed inflammation of Jace’s optic nerves and referred him to a specialist, who discovered the brain tumor.
After Jace’s brain surgery and the two-week hardship leave, Jefferson returned to school with Jace once again serving as the captain of her personal cheerleading squad.
“He told me that he was going to be fine and I would never have to stop school again. He was going to keep cheering me on, and he did,” she said.
Jace completed six weeks of radiation and quickly returned to school and baseball. Meanwhile, Jefferson continued with school, encouraged by the legions of fellow Christian students and professors who prayed for her.
“I talked about God with professors and classmates, and it was a blessing. I knew I was in the right place and on the right journey,” Jefferson said.
In September 2016, Jace began to deteriorate, however. Jefferson struggled remain on track.
“Crying at night while online became a ritual,” she said. “My son fought this disease so hard, and like a champ I knew my fight was to finish school. For him. I wanted him to be proud of me. Just as proud as I was of him.”
Mecca and Jefferson’s parents will be in GCU Arena watching Jefferson receive her diploma from the private Christian university she’s visiting for the first time.
Jace will be there also, nestled safely in her heart.
As she accepts her degree, Jefferson plans to silently give thanks to Jace, Beck, GCU and the healing powers of faith.
Spoiler alert: Jefferson suspects she might cry because, at times, grief throws a mean sucker punch. Her tears, though, are never for herself.
“I’m blessed for many reasons. I’ve been handed things that might not be fair, but I’ve been given the chance to make something from it,” she said.
“I stayed in school to show my kids that perseverance and determination can get you across mountains if you just keep walking.”
Beck places Jefferson on top of his long list of motivated online students, who frequently add college classes to already jam-packed schedules.
“She is truly amazing,” he said. “Her faith and her passion to teach kept her going. Jace did, too. He was very proud of her.”
After commencement, Jefferson plans to earn her Texas teaching certificate and teach fifth grade, the one Jace was in when he died.
“Every psychology class, every paper I wrote and every late night with tears and discussion questions were for him. Every child’s life I touch with my degree will be dedicated to Jace Kolby Jefferson, my hero and my angel.”
Ceremonies for Grand Canyon University’s nontraditional (online) students are scheduled for Friday and Saturday in the Arena. The schedule by college:
9 a.m. Friday: College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Nursing and Health Care Professions
2 p.m. Friday: College of Doctoral Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Nursing and Health Care Professions
9 a.m. Saturday: Colangelo College of Business, College of Fine Arts and Production, College of Theology
2 p.m. Saturday: College of Education