"Before the accident, I had been planning on becoming a lawyer. I had really good grades," she said. After the accident, though, all she could think about was getting better and finishing high school.
She accomplished both in spring 1998, thanks in large part to the tremendous care she received at St. John's Regional Health Center immediately following the accident and at Rusk Rehabilitation Center in Columbia and Physical Therapy Specialists Clinic (PTSC) in West Plains in the months afterward, as well as the help she received from her family, friends, faculty and classmates at Couch High School. "I even got to go on my senior trip," she said, explaining her classmates paid travel expenses for her sister and brother-in-law to go along and help her.
Jennifer knew her continued recovery involved even more hard work and additional surgeries in the future, so she focused on that for the next few years, learning to do more things for herself. One day, while working with her therapists at PTSC, "I realized I needed to get on with my life and so I began thinking about college again," she explained. Although she was still wheelchair bound and continued to need help for her daily tasks, Jennifer told her parents of her desire to go to college. It took little convincing on Jennifer's part to gain her parents' support. "When she told us she wanted to go to college, my first response was let's just do it," Jennifer's mother, Edith Williams, said. "I wanted to see her get an education, so I decided at that point that I would do whatever I could to help her."
With her parents' blessing and mother's assistance, Jennifer enrolled in her first college classes at Missouri State University-West Plains in fall 2001. "It was close and I could schedule my therapy on the same day as my classes," Jennifer said. For the next five years Edith drove Jennifer the 100-mile round trip several times a week so she could attend classes. To keep the routine manageable Jennifer took no more than nine credits a semester. While Jennifer was in class, Edith waited patiently in study areas working puzzle books, visiting with faculty, staff and students and running errands in town and on campus when needed. "If I needed anything for classes, she'd go get it," Jennifer said. "The ladies in the library were very helpful," Edith added. "They'd help me look up the information needed for research papers and other classwork."
Jennifer also received help from her classmates and teachers. She could not write as fast as her instructors talked, so classmates copied notes for her to use. At times, instructors gave extra time to complete tests or take tests through the student advisement and academic support (SAAS) center. And when essays or research papers were due instructors met with her after class so she could dictate to them.
By spring 2006, Jennifer completed enough credits to graduate with an Associate of Arts in General Studies degree, becoming the first in her family to receive a college education. But she didn't stop there. With continued help from her mother, she enrolled in classes through Missouri State University's Outreach Program and graduated May 18 with a Bachelor of Science in General Business. "I'm hoping to find a job in a bank or another business," she said. "I hope I can find a job where I can work online at home." Vocational Rehabilitation, along with Pell Grants, helped pay for her education and will be helping her with that search she added.
Jennifer wasn't the only one receiving a degree on May 18. With approval by the Board of Governors, Edith received an honorary Associate of Arts degree for her support of and dedication to her daughter's education as well as for the help she provided other students while attending to her daughter. "I was shocked," said the 1964 graduate of Ellsinore High School of her reaction to news of the honor. "It's really nice that they think that much of me to do this."
Although Jennifer and Edith were always close, they've become even closer since the accident. "She just wanted to help me achieve my goals and dreams, but without her help, this wouldn't have been possible," Jennifer said. "I'm proud of her," Edith added. "It took a lot of time and effort, but I knew she could do it. I'm glad I was able to help her all these years."
Jennifer also said she gives all honor and praise to the Lord for her accomplishments. "He's the one that gave me the ability and the smarts to do it. Without Him, I wouldn't be here." And, Jennifer and Edith added, they would like to thank everyone – faculty, staff and students – who have helped them along the way, including Coordinator of Student Advisement Veronica Mays in SAAS and Circulation Supervisor Sophia Skinner in the Garnett Library. "I'm very grateful for all the help everyone gave me and their willingness to help," Jennifer said. "They were always really good to her and to me, too," Edith added.