CSB student overcomes struggles to earn Overcoming Challenges Award from Women Chemists Committee of the ACS

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July 29, 2016

By Mike Killeen; Photo by Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Occasionally, something good comes out of something bad.

Take Jherian Mitchell-Jones, a rising sophomore at the College of Saint Benedict.

Mitchell-JonesMitchell-Jones survived an abusive relationship in an unhealthy environment growing up. She moved into a better environment, started to succeed academically in high school and enrolled at CSB.

After a year of continued academic success at CSB, Mitchell-Jones has received the Women Chemists Committee's Overcoming Challenges Award from the American Chemical Society. The award honors one woman student in the U.S. who has "overcome hardships (economic, personal or academic) in pursuit of her education."

"She is the first student I've had that popped in my head that I thought would be great (for the award)," said Kate Graham, associate professor of chemistry and chair of the department. "It's her story."

It's a powerful story.

"Until the age of 13, I was in a very unhealthy environment," Mitchell-Jones said. "I was around a lot of drug abuse, and it was just very hard for me. I wasn't doing well in school because of that.

"When my dad got custody of me, I moved into a better environment and I was able to do better in school. I was no longer in decelerated classes, and I was able to overcome the depression and anxiety that formed because of the physical and sexual abuse I received," Mitchell-Jones said.

Mitchell Jones was asked if she considered herself a candidate for college at that time.

"No, I would say that I was a candidate to survive," Mitchell-Jones said. "It was basically really hard living in that environment. And, of course, I had the depression and the anxiety of just living. It was really hard for me."

Even then, she was already developing an interest in science.

"My parents, they always encouraged me to pursue science, because I was always very curious about things. I would just say, 'How does this work? Why does this do this?' And so, I've always liked science," Mitchell-Jones said.

"Once I found out about the FoCuS program, I went toward that and applied and was able to get into the program."

The Future Chemists Scholarships and Support (FoCuS) is a special program for students interested in studying chemistry or biochemistry at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. Incoming students are eligible for the program, which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Besides receiving a $22,000 scholarship per year, students go through a program called "Summer Bridge" that starts with an orientation and introductory chemistry class and lab. It also includes a mentorship component with younger children.

"The FoCuS program really gave me a head start on my chemistry classes the summer before my first year in college," Mitchell-Jones said. "We were also able to receive some direction on how to write and fill out an application, how to write a letter, how to apply for these different things- how do we get ourselves out there.

This will be the fifth cohort of the program, which is for first generation, at-risk or low income students.

"We have a fair amount of data that being in the program increases their (college) retention," Graham said. "We have about a 90 percent retention for the FoCuS students. What it's doing is giving them that step up to be what our regular retention rates are."

Graham, who first met Mitchell-Jones when she visited CSB as a high school senior, calls her "highly competitive and very determined to be one of the top students."

Mitchell-Jones considers Graham to be "a mentor for all of us (in the FoCuS program). I think she's really shown me and all of us in the FoCuS program that we can succeed, that chemistry is this wonderful topic that we can all be interested in.

"We came because we were interested in chemistry, and she has really shown us more, what chemistry is about and also the fact we can succeed."

Mitchell-Jones receives a $250 monetary prize and up to $1,000 for travel expenses to attend the ACS Fall National Meeting Aug. 21-25 in Philadelphia for winning the award. At the meeting, she will receive a plaque and be recognized at the Women Chemists Committee luncheon.

"I'm very honored. It's just great having this award. In general just having this award is showing that women in chemistry are trying, that they are doing their best to overcome these struggles and adversity," Mitchell-Jones said.

"Having received this award, I feel like it is very validating, that I am succeeding. I am doing my best. I can go even farther than this. I'm really trying to do my best, and do more."