Music education degree is dream come true for nontraditional student Odell Jackson

Odell Jackson, graduating music education major

The percussionist, aspiring band director and father of three is graduating summa cum laude after turning an initial fear of failure into a cumulative GPA of 3.8. (Photo by August Jennewein)

On the same morning in August 2011 that his oldest child started kindergarten, Odell Jackson went back to school.

“It just worked out that way that his first day was my first day,” says Jackson, now a graduating senior at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

And like many people on their first day of class, Jackson experienced some jitters as he began a college career he’d been putting off for some time.

“I’m a nontraditional student,” the Jefferson County resident and lifelong percussionist explains. “I waited until I was 27, and I already had a family, wife and three kids. But at every step there was someone there to kind of meet me and guide me.”

It was during his time at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri, where Jackson completed his initial years of coursework, that he learned of a place called UMSL.

When an instructor mentioned the university during a conversation about where Jackson might transfer given his hopes to become a band director, he had never heard of it before.

“Park Hills is about an hour and a half south of St. Louis, and when he just told me one day, ‘Well, have you talked to UMSL?’ I said, ‘What’s UMSL?’” Jackson recalls. “It turned out to be the best decision. I don’t think that I would have had the same success if I had chosen any other place.”

His persistence toward a bachelor’s degree in music education has meant many long days and nights the past six years – for him as well as his supportive family, who stepped up in countless ways.

“If it wasn’t for them, I couldn’t do it,” says Jackson, who worked in retail and as a school custodian over the course of his studies. “My wife worked full time and really kept the house going, and there were a lot of times where I would leave before the kids left for school, stop in just for about a half hour at home in the afternoon, get my work uniform on for the evening and not be home until after 11 at night.”

Taking it all one day at a time was key, he says. And “overwhelming” is the word that now comes to mind as he thinks about this Saturday, when he’ll walk across the UMSL commencement stage in celebration of graduating summa cum laude.

“Just thinking about graduating and what it’s taken to get to this point, it’s really a big deal, because it’s a dream, and I get to be one that accomplishes my dream,” Jackson says.

A drummer since the age of 8, he found a wealth of opportunities for continued learning upon enrolling in the Department of Music in 2015.

Another early UMSL discovery? The amazing faculty.

Jackson’s first conversation with Matt Henry, director of the university’s percussion ensembles, particularly stands out.

“I was honest with him,” Jackson recalls, “and said, ‘I have a fear of failing, because I’ve invested a lot of time, and I spent a lot of time waiting to go back to school, and I’ve kind of got people depending on me.’

“And he said, ‘You won’t fail, because it’s my job to make sure you don’t.’ So from that day forward, he and Professor [Gary] Brandes just made sure that everything was in line. They understood me as a student and knew where I was in my learning process – and knew how to challenge me and help me grow.”

Most recent among those challenges is the pair of student-teaching assignments he’s made the most of this final semester.

His first placement, which officially began in late August, was at Seckman High School, where he quickly felt like a member of the regular staff.

“I took the initiative to contact my cooperating teacher early, and I went and spent three weeks with the marching band who showed up the last week of July,” Jackson says. “I got to know the students and got to know the environment, and in the past 16 weeks I’ve just experienced so much.”

Beyond the school day itself, Jackson attended and contributed to every football game, every marching competition and evening rehearsals – and also conducted two concert bands and a Halloween concert with the younger musicians.

And at his current, second placement, Festus Intermediate, he’ll be leading the Christmas program. That’s on top of helping teach musical skills to about 100 different young people each and every weekday.

“The minute I stepped into the classroom I felt at home,” Jackson says of student teaching. “It’s been awesome, just taking advantage of all these opportunities. It gives me a real idea of what to expect when I go in and have my position as a teacher. There’s a lot to it.”

This spring he plans to gain even more classroom experience as a substitute teacher in local schools while looking toward more permanent job options next fall. But he’s “not done yet,” he adds.

His ultimate goal is to be a university director of bands, and so he’s got his eye on further studies one day toward that end.

And like his love of music, which has already been passed on to his children, that love of learning – throughout life – seems to run in the family. Jackson’s mother pursued a college degree when he was a teenager, and he remembers how important that was.

“She graduated with a double major in business and psychology the same year that I graduated high school,” he says. “That was a big thing for her, and I got to witness it. She let us know how valuable that education is.”

The UMSL Experience

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