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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

Jason Witmer emailed the newspaper recently with some news: His daughter was graduating from college and he thought we might want to know.

He was right.

Four years ago, I wrote a story about his daughter, Je’Kerra Hopper, when she was graduating from Lincoln High — an overcoming-all-odds tale of a young woman who became the seventh person in her family to graduate from high school and the first to go to college.

Update (thanks, dad): The first college graduate in her family, a high school student who dreamed of becoming a police officer who now holds a criminal justice administration degree from Peru State College.

The fact that Witmer was the one doing the emailing is part of Hopper's story, because they've only been able to spend time together in the last two years.

For most of her childhood he was in prison, first for a gang-related crime in Omaha and then for an attempted robbery in Lincoln he was convicted of when she was 4. Her mom, with whom she now speaks regularly with by phone, is serving a life sentence in an Arizona prison.

All those years, though, her dad kept tabs on her.

“I followed everything,” Witmer said. Her family brought her to see him three or four times a year. He started reading books on parenting and would give her “jobs” — watching a movie and writing a report, for instance.

Later, he said, he began to change in earnest, leaving behind the lifestyle that landed him in prison, a change motivated by some inmates who encouraged him, and his daughter who inspired him.

“It pushed me big-time,” said Witmer, who now works for the Mental Health Association of Nebraska. “Between (those in prison encouraging him) and all she was doing and being able to keep that little relationship with her, that just opened the door for me to really embrace the change.”

Hopper was raised by her grandfather after her grandma died, was close to an aunt who was more like a sister, and had a supportive TeamMate mentor. She had teachers who believed in her and helped her.

She also had the right stuff: determination and drive, resiliency and compassion and a belief there was a better life for her, beyond the violence and chaos that had touched so much of her family.

At Peru State, she joined the criminal justice club and the Black Student Union, and was program director of Feeding 44, a food bank started by another student on campus.

She participated in a program for criminal justice majors who met inmates at the Tecumseh prison, the same program her dad had participated in sometime earlier.

She spoke at a number of TeamMates galas — getting a standing ovation each time — and met Tom Osborne, Nebraska men's basketball coach Tim Miles, the Buffett family and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She spoke to police officers at the request of the former chief. She graduated with a 3.6 GPA.

It wasn’t easy.

Being in college created a rift with some members of her family, who thought she was being “bougie” — or uppity. Her grandpa was in a serious car accident and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Two years ago, when her dad was released from prison, Hopper had a son, Jevonte Jr., and the next year began work as a guard at the prison in Tecumseh. 

For a time, she worked 16-hour shifts, juggled a 21-credit hour class load and cared for her child.

She had help. She’s gotten close to her dad — who’s now around a lot, bragging about his daughter and being a grandpa to her son. Dan and Elaine Hanson, the Peru State president and his wife, were big supporters, she said.

Through friends she met a Nebraska City woman, who was there whenever she needed help, becoming the kind of supporter her TeamMate was in high school, with whom she’s remained in contact.

“Now I have two heroes,” she said. “I won’t forget those two people. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

She and Jevonte’s dad are together now, and he’s working on an audio engineering degree.

She plans to go back to school to get a master’s degree in business administration and still wants to be a police officer; but first, she wants to spend more time with her son. 

She didn’t have her parents in her life as a child, and she doesn’t want her son to feel that absence — even if it's for different reasons.

“I want to wait a little ... till he’s bigger so he understands a little more,” she said. “I was always wondering why my parents weren’t around. I don’t want him to question that.”

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She won't quit, though, and her son is another reason to keep working toward the life she sees for herself.

"I know what I missed out on and I wanted him to have more than that,” she said.

Her dad and son were among those at her graduation May 5. A week later, she left for a two-week college-organized trip through Vienna, London and Amsterdam.

She’s OK with her dad contacting the newspaper, she said, because she wants her story to be heard, to do her part to dispel the negative stereotypes of single moms and African-Americans.

When she got pregnant, it wasn't the end of college, it was another reason to finish.

“It motivated me more because it’s possible no matter how many obstacles come your way, there’s a way around it.”

So, in case it isn't obvious already: This college diploma — just like the high school one she earned four years ago — is a beginning, not an end.

“I’m going to keep moving forward,” she said. “I’m not going to let anything stop me.”

National attention for LHS

In other Lincoln High-related news, the Washington Post recently ran an extensive profile of the school that covered all the attributes that made the Links worthy of being selected one of eight “Schools of Opportunity” in 2017.

The project, begun as a pilot in New York and Colorado that went national in 2015-16, recognizes schools that do extraordinary work to close opportunity gaps.

To read what one of the founders of the project, who is director of the National Education Policy Center and a University of Colorado Boulder education expert, had to say about the Links, go to the Washington Post website and search "Lincoln High School."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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