How GMC- Milledgeville Adjunct Professor Jessica Whitehead exceeded her job description and stepped in to meet the needs of three GMC student-athletes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic
In mid-March 2020, the world found itself in constant flux due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Georgia Military College students were transitioning to online learning at home. While the majority of our junior college athletes were able to leave the Milledgeville campus and move back home to be with their families, a few international students found themselves in an unlikely predicament. Three players on GMC’s soccer team – Kyle, Mihad, and Ryan – are international students from Johannesburg, South Africa who were unable to fly back home to their country due to international travel restrictions.
Little did these students know at the start of their GMC quarter a few weeks prior, that a GMC adjunct professor would step in with a true spirit of service.
Jessica Whitehead serves as an adjunct-professor at the GMC-Milledgeville campus. With a background in therapy and social services, Jessica thrives in the relational aspect of her teaching job – meeting students where they are, encouraging them throughout their studies, and helping them to achieve their goals for a brighter future. She teaches “college success” and “critical thinking and character,” and at the start of the winter semester, had just started teaching Kyle in her PER 101 – College Success class.
With classes turned virtual and her students back at home, Jessica began intentionally checking in with her students and making sure they were handling the chaos of the time as best they could. She wanted to know where “home” was, how her students were feeling, and what she could do to alleviate the stress that came along with adjusting to online learning.
As online learning progressed, Jessica woke up in the middle of the night, and her mind immediately went to Kyle. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. Kyle is still here in the United States, from another country, without his mom, in a pandemic. What in the world.” Moved by that thought, Jessica, a mom of two herself, emailed Kyle and shared the simple but powerful statement: “If there is anything I can do to help you, let me know.”
Jessica quickly learned that Kyle was still residing in Milledgeville with his two roommates and fellow soccer teammates, and they were almost out of food.
While staying in their apartment close to campus during the pandemic, the three athletes found themselves without reliable and safe transportation to pick up supplies and groceries. Since all other GMC students had left campus, they had no resource to take them to the store, as they typically relied on friends and teammates to drive them. Taxi and ride-share services had shut down as well, leaving the young men with no way to acquire groceries at all.
Not only did these students not have transportation, they were in need of financial assistance. The global pandemic had caused the South African currency to devalue in the States, so the money they did have was no longer as effective for them in the U.S.
Jessica is the type of educator who pursues student success at no matter the cost. With all of this information of her student’s needs in hand, Jessica leaped into action. She reached out to her church community to donate food and supplies to drop off at the boys’ apartment, who were so grateful for the assistance. She later coordinated with GMC Chaplain Reverend Luke to transport the boys for trips to the store once their currency was performing better.
While meeting the physical needs of these students, Jessica was reminded of the bond that so quickly forms when one serves from the heart. “At this point, I have five children,” shared Jessica. “I have two biological children, and three South African children as well,” she commented while describing how the challenges of the pandemic resulted in such a special relationship between her and the students.
As young men far away from home during trying times Kyle, Mihad, and Ryan have grown to cherish their relationship with Jessica. “Mrs. Whitehead is now our go-to person for everything. It’s like she is our American mother. We’ve all gotten so close it’s like we are a family. She checks on us all the time and we have been over for dinners. We’ve also gotten to know her children well. We are a unit now – if Mrs. Whitehead needs us, we are there for her and if we ever need anything, she is there for us,” shared Kyle.
Going above and beyond her job description is Jessica’s way of life. As time progressed and the boys needed to move out of their apartment into a new apartment for financial reasons, Jessica let them borrow a family member’s truck, and donated furniture and other supplies to help them feel a bit more settled.
“Ms. Whitehead has definitely made my experience through this worldwide pandemic much easier. She has been a great help,” shared Mihad.
The familial bond Jessica shares with Kyle, Mihad, and Ryan has now expanded across the globe to Johannesburg. The boys’ families video chat with Jessica regularly and keep in touch as a special connection to their sons who are studying so far away from home.
“Kyle and his fellow South African students are blessed to have Jessica’s support, guidance and kindness during this time. She has gone above and beyond what anybody could ever expect – from assisting the students with food, lifts to the shops, lifts from the airport, having a number to call and generally making them feel that they are not alone! With the closure of the school during this pandemic and with no way of coming home due to travel restrictions, it has indeed been a trying time and her assistance has been invaluable – to the children – as well as to us as the parents who are so far away! She has become their de facto mum and go to person,” wrote Marion, mother to Kyle.
“Each time I speak to Mihad he always mentions something new that she has done or offered. I know that perhaps Jessica may see it as an insignificant gesture, but trust me, to those boys, it means everything,” noted Mihad’s mother, Sumaya. Jessica’s motivation for serving her students so greatly is a deeply personal one. At the age of 19, Jessica was living and working in Milledgeville. One day at the restaurant where she worked, she met a Georgia College and State University professor, who took an interest in her educational future. He continued to ask her why she wasn’t attending college, and one day he asked her, “If you had the opportunity to go to college, would you?” When Jessica answered with a resounding yes, his response was overwhelming. He offered to pay her first year of tuition and books.
“He told me that when you are able, you help other people. So that is what I am doing,” Fast forward many years and three college degrees later, Jessica finds herself in a position to impact students in a way that may change the trajectory of their lives as well.
Over the past few months the students have been assisted in so many different ways, all because of Jessica’s willingness to step into their lives and serve. Kyle, Mihad, and Ryan are still living together in a more affordable apartment with adequate furniture. Each of them also received a $300 gift card to help buy food and supplies due to funds raised through the “All Paws In” campaign, a fundraising effort designed to help students impacted directly by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, all three students have received scholarship assistance this quarter thanks to GMC’s COVID-19 assistance fund. The families continue to be blown away by the generosity that has been shown to them.
Ryan’s mother Coleen shared this fitting quote when writing about the influence Jessica has had on her son: “Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion“.
With the start of a new school year underway, Kyle, Mihad, and Ryan are prepared and supported for another year of learning and excelling on the soccer field. These young men have faced many challenges over the past six months, but they have come out on the other side with a new perspective on life, and a life-long “stand in mum” in the form of adjunct professor Jessica Whitehead.
Pictured above: GMC Adjunct Professor Jessica Whitehead with Kyle, Ryan, Mihad, her biological son Jayden and biological daughter Izabella
Photo credit: Terry Massey Photography