When many kids were singing along with "Barney and Friends," Jozlyn Hall was watching open heart surgeries on TLC, dreaming of her future as she munched peanut butter sandwiches while doctors performed intricate procedures.
“I knew what I wanted,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be in the medical field and I knew that I wanted to make a difference.”
That desire has served her well as she’s beaten long odds to work closer to achieving her dreams.
She is one of the two students from her high school class to graduate college, recently earning a bachelor’s degree in biology/pre-med from Texas Woman’s University. In August, she’ll teach sixth grade science while preparing for physician’s assistant school.
She grew up in South Dallas with her mother, Thelma, who worked long hours, leaving Jozlyn in the care of her grandfather and step-grandmother. Thelma trusted them to protect her daughter so she could provide for Jozlyn.
The Halls’ world crumbled when Jozlyn told her mother that her grandfather had been abusing her. Thelma made the courageous decision to quit her job so she could care for her daughter in her time of need. As a result, the family often went without food and electricity.
“We went through lots of trauma,” Thelma said. “Considering all she’s been through, it’s incredible that Jozlyn is where she is.”
“My mom had to be there to support me emotionally,” Jozlyn said. “So even though we struggled financially, I’m in a much better spiritual, mental and emotional state because of how she was just always by my side.”
In the onslaught of legal fees and emotional distress, the Halls turned to the Buckner Family Hope Center at Wynnewood for support. The program provides critical services, aid and case management to families in need.
“Buckner was there to give us a lot of guidance and help,” Thelma said. “They became a place of safety and comfort. Thank God, because we were able to recover quickly.”
Early in her healing process, Jozlyn began attending the Hope Center’s after-school program. The quiet, timid, wounded girl who first entered those doors is a far cry from the confident, boisterous, empathetic woman who walks through them today.
“I was really shy but I realized I couldn’t help anybody if I held back," Jozlyn said. "Maybe somebody’s going through what I’m going through and if I’m quiet and too scared to talk about it then they can’t get help.”
Throughout middle and high school, Jozlyn’s confidence and performance grew. She completed homework assignments on an old laptop her mom purchased from a pawn shop. She competed in health skills competitions, mentored younger students, worked with the Health Professions Recruitment and Exposure Program at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and marched in the band.
“She never had a need to be accepted by people, never needed to be affirmed by her friends,”said Cheryl Williams, director of the Hope Center. “She didn’t really hang around with a lot of foolish girls or people who weren’t going anywhere. She was very strategic in who she hung around with to make sure she was successful.”
When the time came to think about college, everything was new for Jozlyn. She used Google to navigate many of the intricacies of financial aid, school applications, class registration and student life.
“I just did it,” Jozlyn said. “I was scared, but I couldn’t just sit in front of my computer and not do anything. I had to do something, and I must have done something right because I graduated.”
After a bumpy freshman year at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Jozlyn transferred to TWU hoping to align her medical dreams with the school’s nursing program. There, she took every possible opportunity for leadership, determined to never let her past define her future.
“As an African American woman who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, the odds of me being successful were not likely,” Jozlyn said. “I’m working for myself, but I’m also working as an example for others like me because my journey is a story for them to follow too. Seeing them use my story to get where they want to go is a big motivation for me.”
Williams, who has seen countless children come through her program, is committed to holding up Jozlyn’s story.
“I want people to see her on the wall of fame and I want her to come back as a live, breathing person that they can see,” Williams said. “She can motivate girls like I just can’t because she lived on Pratt Street, she lived on Wynnewood. She knows about living in a drug-infested community. But she was determined to not become a product of any of that.”
Throughout their journey, Jozlyn and Thelma have remained close. They share a tight bond and an unshakeable faith in God. Both admit it’s the struggles that have made them who they are today.
“We’ve cried and we’ve had to work hard,” Thelma said. “There have been times where we’ve had nothing. But nothing is impossible for those who believe.”
For Jozlyn, this is only the beginning.
“If you don’t like your situation you have the power to change it,” Jozlyn said. “I have so much to look forward to. I’ve done so much at an early age, and I hope I’ve made a difference.”
Story and photos by Elizabeth Arnold.
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