My Education Story

Parent & Family Engagement, Who We Are | 02/28/2017

Jacquelyn Dortch-Thomas
National Director of Family Engagement & Training

Jacqui leads Stand's Family Engagement Program, helping parents take a stand for their children's education.

My name is Jacquelyn Dortch-Thomas, I was born and raised on the Westside of Chicago in historic K-town. My teenaged parents lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my grandmother, thirteen-year old aunt, and my 15 month-old brother. Despite our modest beginnings, my grandmother and dad worked hard to make sure our needs were met.

Because my mother and aunt were still school-aged, education was a constant topic in our household. My grandmother made it clear that she expected her daughters to continue in school. While we attended Head Start, my mother pursued GED classes at Malcolm X College.

(Jacqui as a little girl)

Several years later, and after my family moved to the Austin neighborhood, a community advocate introduced my parents to the mayor’s new busing program which was created to combat overcrowding and poor school quality in the neighborhood schools. This was not a popular option in the community since it meant busing us nearly an hour away from home each day to attend a school in all white community where we were simply not wanted. Still, my very young parents believed that access to quality education was worth any challenge and placed us in the busing program.

On the first day at my new school, we were met with much dissent as we exited the bus. Parents were lined up on both sides of the school entrance, some protesting our arrival and some welcoming us with open arms. The fear and trepidation soon wore off, because at the end of the day we were just kids wanting to learn. I sincerely believe that being in an environment of learning, where I had books, a lunch room and auditorium, structure, quality teachers, and academic challenge is the reason I am where I am today. 

(Jacqui was bused nearly an hour away to attend Edison Elementary School)

Despite my parents’ commitment to education, they began to focus on my siblings and me finding secure employment like working in civil service. They were laser focused on us obtaining a high school diploma, but equated this with us getting a good job. So, when I worked with my gym teacher to apply for college, the idea of me going away was unthinkable for my parents. After all, my mother had held me close to make sure I didn’t become a teenage parent, so going away to college was out of the question. Even my grandmother was against this.

Sylvia, my cousin who had graduated from Southern Illinois University (SIU) and then from medical school, interceded. She told my mother that either she let me go, or I could move in with her and she would send me. Well that did it. Sylvia and my mother were the same age and while Sylvia excelled in school, my mother was having children and getting married. The last thing that Sylvia was going to do was get credit for my impending success.

I tear up as I write this because in 2005, at the age of 53 my mother suddenly passed away, but I fondly remember after she had helped me unpack my dorm room, met my roommate and her family it was time to say goodbye. We hugged as both of us worked hard to hold back our tears. She drove off, but came right back. She jumped out of the car and pointed her finger at me and said these words, “Jacqui, I am so blessed to have had a child like you. My whole existence and validation is riding on your success – you better finish, you hear me? Make me proud baby. You better finish.” Those words permeate through everything I have set out to do since then.

In May of 1989, I graduated from SIU, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. My parents were two of the proudest people in the building.

(Jacqui with her parents at her college graduation)

I continued my education by earning a Master’s degree in Human Services Administration and a Master’s certificate in Human Resource Management. I have dedicated my life to working in social service and education, pursing rights, liberties, and opportunities for our most fragile and disenfranchised children and families. Excellence, commitment, and a quest to “finish” are the tenements of my career. I would rather quit a job or project rather that undermine its purpose with subpar performance.


(Jacqui with her family, friends, and colleagues at her Master's degree graduation)

In 2011, I had been working in a large non-profit organization for more than eight years, whose mission was to ensure that all children had access to quality early care and education. I was feeling constrained in my ability to be effective and I realized that I just showing up for economic purposes. I knew it was time for a change.

I heard about a meeting Stand for Children was hosting in Chicago. I looked up the organization and decided to go to the meeting. I was so intrigued, and I wanted to be a part of the movement. I submitted my application and five years later here I am.

Working to develop and grow Stand University for Parents (Stand UP) has been my favorite and most rewarding project. Knowledge is power. My 15-year old mother would say, “I can’t take you to Europe, but I can teach you how to talk about it as if you have walked every inch of that land”. That is what Stand UP does for parents. It allows them to become knowledgeable about the school system and teaches them to effectively advocate for their children. It is amazing to watch parents transition from lambs to lions.

(Jacqui with her husband, Donovan Thomas, and their family)

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