For Demetrice (Dee) Jordan, MSU’s 2020 Commencement would be nothing short of special. This was to be the day she imagined and worked toward for years. In addition to celebrating her achievements as a dual doctoral candidate in the departments of Geography, Environment and Spatial Science and Environmental Science and Policy, she would share this day with her son, Ashton Jordan, who was earning his undergraduate degree in communications in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.
The road to Michigan State University, for the Jordans, was not a given. Both Jordans are firsts in their own right. Dee Jordan is a first-generation college graduate, and Ashton is the first male in their family to earn a college degree.
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Dee Jordan had her sights set on becoming a physician. She was on a pre-med track at Mississippi Valley State University, but her education was put on pause when she became pregnant with her son Ashton during her junior year.
As a single Black mother without her college degree, she recognized the obstacles that lie before her. “During that time, it was said that Black children born to unwed mothers without a college degree were more likely to have negative life experiences… Hearing these statistics frightened me to my core,” Dee said.
Perhaps it was this fear — combined with a healthy dose of grit — that catapulted Dee to defy the odds. Her grandmother Lula Jordan and Audrey Larsha ("Great Granny") encouraged her to prove the naysayers wrong. And with that support, Dee Jordan knew, “failure was not an option.” She vowed to do everything she possibly could to ensure her son was a positive, productive citizen and that he had options.
By the time Ashton was to begin first grade, the two were living in Atlanta, Georgia. It was 2001. Dee knew as long as she found a good school for Ashton, they would have what they needed.
Dee was working at IBM, and they lived within walking distance of Ashton’s charter school; however, life was not as idyllic as Dee had hoped. Ashton's father was largely absent in his life, causing Ashton to struggle emotionally. He needed someone other than his mother and his teachers.
As the outbursts became more frequent, Ashton’s need for a male mentor was increasingly evident.
Art Collins, a 67-year old man, decided to volunteer as a mentor after he saw an announcement in his church bulletin. While the two appeared to be an unlikely match, after some time and a lot of encouragement, the connection between the two was undeniable.
Even as Ashton made strides, he continued to experience setbacks in school. During the fourth grade, Ashton transferred to a school that had a program for children with emotional and behavioral problems.
With the proper supports in place, namely two remarkable mentors — Collins and his “big brother” Alan Cosby whom Ashton met when he was accepted into the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program of Atlanta — and a devoted mother by his side, Ashton worked hard and persevered.
During his senior year of high school, after writing eight 1000-word essays, he was awarded the coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covered tuition and expenses to the college of his choice.
Carving one’s path may be coded in the Jordan DNA. Shortly after Dee accepted a University Fellowship, the highest recruitment award offered by MSU Graduate School to pursue her Ph.D., Ashton selected Elon University, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina.
It was at Elon that Ashton decided on a research career path, but it was Dee's role as a graduate student facilitator for MSU’s Summer Research Opportunities Program, or SROP, that brought Ashton to MSU's campus.
The following summer Ashton enrolled in SROP where he fell in love with the campus and the professors. He made his case to Dee that he should transfer. While apprehensive at first, Dee realized transferring to MSU was in Ashton’s best interest.
Upon his arrival, Ashton excelled in his classes and began to come into his own. He made the Dean's List every semester and found two mentors in MSU’s Joe Darden, professor of geography in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences, and Lee June, professor in the Department of Psychology.
Ashton’s success is also his mother’s success. That the two reached this important milestone together is kismet, some might say. “Every decision surrounding my son was intentional, even the subtle things,” Dee said. “When he was a child, I placed a map of America at the head of his bed and a map of the world at his feet. I wanted him to know where he was, but that there was a whole world out there. I told him every day that he was a part of something bigger than himself, and there was no boundary on his potential.”
As Ashton Jordan celebrates earning his undergraduate degree and preparing for his graduate studies in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dee Jordan completes her dissertation for her doctoral studies and earns the distinction of being MSU’s first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the Department of Geography.
“To be the first is bittersweet,” said Dee, “It shows we have a lot of work to do, to diversify the racial and ethnic landscape of leadership and opportunity.” In addition to paving the way, Dee threw herself into student leadership positions in the Council of Graduate Students, or COGS, and became actively involved in the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriat learning community. “My primary goal was to improve campus culture and climate, and to ensure other graduate students did not experience some of the challenges I experienced,” Dee said.
After sharing her experiences with faculty, Dee decided to turn them into positive advocacy opportunities. “I created the Diversity, Inclusion and Sensitivity Workshop through the Graduate Welfare Committee of COGS, to create a space where issues surrounding microaggressions, bias and privilege could be discussed and understanding could be reached.”
To help increase diversity in the Department of Geography at MSU and the discipline of geography as a whole, Dee created the Advancing Geography Through Diversity Program, or AGTDP, which is a cohort-based program to recruit, retain, support and provide engagement opportunities for African American, Hispanic American and Native American graduate students.
Despite the current conditions that prevented a grand celebration with family and friends, including the honor of being hooded by Karen Johnson-Webb, who was the first African American woman to receive a graduate degree from the geography department in 1994, Dee said, “Ashton and I had so much joy in our hearts about our mutual accomplishments.”
Others dealing with discouragement during this challenging time may benefit from the mantra that has guided Dee Jordan for the last 20 years: “When you are down, look up. If you can look up, you can get up. If you can get up, you can move forward. If you can move forward, you can succeed."
Although Michigan may not have been on the Jordans’ road map to success initially, it is clear both were destined to become Spartans. They are change-makers who challenge status quo, beat the odds and work for greater tomorrows — for themselves and those around them.