It is often said that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Nobody knows that better than Jacqueline Limbrick, who graduated from college last May at age 58.
“I started college again when I was 55,” Limbrick reflects on the ultimately fulfilling journey set in motion by unimaginable tragedy. “March 25, 2014, was a tragic day for me. I lost my only daughter Brittany, 28, to a brain aneurism, and she left four kids behind.” Limbrick — a mother of three and grandmother of eight — took custody of her daughter’s children, who at the time were two, four, nine and 12.
That is a shocking life twist, but Limbrick not only embraced the changes, she pivoted, returned to college and changed careers so she could better support a growing family. She graduated last May with a degree in office systems technology from Southwest Louisiana Technical Community College (SOWELA) in Lake Charles, La. The college, one of the largest, most progressive multi-campus postsecondary technical schools in Louisiana, became her second home.
Circling back to the beginning
Before she returned to college, Limbrick had a busy career in the corrections system, working up to 12 hours a day. Life was hectic, and days went by in a tiring blur that left little energy for anything else. When her Brittany died, life changed so fast. Losing her only daughter caused Limbrick to stop and reconsider everything in her world, including her work and the future course of her life. Grieving, she took time away from work to regroup.
After taking a break to settle in the children, she returned to her position, but was laid off after a corporate buyout. While receiving unemployment benefits and searching for a new job, she realized she had a unique opportunity to do something more with her life.
“What do you want to do?” she asked herself. “I really didn’t want to go back into the corrections system because of the long hours.” Instead of just another job, Limbrick wanted to pursue new training that would catapult her into a different field. Her goal was a steady job with Monday through Friday hours and higher earnings that would mean she could take better care of her family. She was not a traditional student, and raising four grandchildren meant she had become a mom all over again. Still, she wanted to make the most of this educational opportunity, so she explored local college offerings and found that SOWELA just felt right. She enrolled, and upon meeting advisor Adrienne Abel, she quickly gained interest and excitement about being back in school.
She still had many responsibilities at home, but her close family ties meant that her sisters, brothers and others regularly pitched in to babysit or to fill in the gaps. “There was always someone there to help me,” she remembers with gratitude.
Making the most of second chances
Limbrick immersed herself in her schoolwork and joined several student organizations. That intiative led her to serve on the college’s student government association, and she became even more motivated to do well as a student.
As she attended more campus meetings, her excitement continued to grow. “All of a sudden I wanted to do more and I wanted to be more. I wanted to be part of SkillsUSA through all of it,” she said. “SkillsUSA not only teaches you how to hone your technical skills, but you learn how to interact with different people and be comfortable in various situations, and you learn from these experiences and build up your confidence.”
Her focus changed from, “I don’t think I can do this” to, “Yes, I can definitely do this.” She claims she enjoyed the technical aspects of SkillsUSA the most because “it puts what you learn into practice in a career-driven atmosphere.”
Limbrick served as the SkillsUSA Louisiana postsecondary state secretary, president of her local chapter and vice president of the SOWELA student government association. She became a top student, earning a 3.6 GPA. Her academic achievement led to her induction into both the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and the National Technical Honor Society.
Whenever she was overcome with fear that she wouldn’t succeed, her advisor always said, “Just give it a try.” Those words became a theme for Limbrick’s new life. She credits her advisor as being the main reason school was such an incredibly positive experience the second time around.
“Ms. Abel was my biggest cheerleader,” Limbrick says. “Not just for me, but for all the students. She was constantly pushing us and guiding us to be our best and to do our best. Whatever we needed for our education or for our classes, she made herself available.”
Abel returns the compliments: “Jacqueline was an exceptional student who took the time to totally immerse herself in the college’s organizations and extracurricular activities. SkillsUSA was the program she truly loved, and, since graduation, she has continued to support our chapter.” Abel says that Limbrick embodies the true spirit of SkillsUSA and of paying it forward.
“SOWELA was like my family,” Limbrick admits. “You get to know all of the students. Being part of all the different campus organizations, I got to intermingle with various students and programs. I even got to meet parents of the students who were planning to attend SOWELA before they even enrolled.”
It has been a learning experience that she enjoyed — every moment of it. “Without the backing of my college and the staff and the support from my family, I wouldn’t be here,” Limbrick concludes.
Limbrick studied office systems technology, but also took medical terminology classes to learn medical coding. She now works for the Department of Children and Family Services, a job that incorporates her skills, education and SkillsUSA training. She was interviewing for the position last summer when she attended the 2019 National Leadership and Skills Conference. She enjoyed competing in Medical Terminology at the state event as the only non-nursing student competing.
While her life has been full of twists, it wasn’t the sad twists that molded her, but how she handled each turn of events. When Limbrick was in college the first time, she focused on her basketball game over academics. She dropped out to start a family and wanted to go back to school many times. It was not until life was the hardest that she pushed herself and truly discovered who she was and the incredible potential she possessed.
At 59, she is still growing and learning. “And you know what?” she says. “I am quite all right with that.”