(MEMPHIS, Tenn.) — When Jerica Phillips’ 17-year-old daughter, Jaidah, graduated from high school, it was a moment full of even more pride than usual.
Phillips was already a mom to Jaidah when she graduated from high school herself, having given birth to her at age 17 at the start of her senior year.
Phillips documented the full-circle, mother-daughter moment on social media with “how it’s going vs how it started” posts that quickly went viral.
“We did it! Motherhood has been my greatest flex,” Phillips wrote on LinkedIn. “I birthed this beautiful girl my senior year of high school. Despite the obvious struggles of being a teen mom, I knew I couldn’t give up on my dreams if I wanted her to someday fulfill her wildest dreams.”
Phillips, of Memphis, Tennessee, told ABC’s Good Morning America she wanted to document the moment for herself and her family but is glad it is now inspiring others.
“I didn’t expect for my story to be able to inspire so many other people, but I’m grateful for this opportunity,” she said. “I’m happy that this test in my life has become my testimony.”
Phillips’ test in life began when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jaidah at the start of her senior year of high school. She continued with school and was able to graduate on time with her class.
“I was in the top 10 in my class and taking all these advanced courses and honors and I knew the disappointment in me from a lot of my teachers,” she said. “So it really pushed me to beat all the stereotypes. I wanted to show teachers and others who I felt were disappointed in me that I could still accomplish all of my academic goals and dreams.”
Despite pleas from her family to stay in Memphis for college, Phillips continued with her plan to attend the University of Tennessee, Knoxville on an academic scholarship. She made Jaidah a part of her college experience.
“She was welcomed everywhere on campus,” Phillips said of her then-infant daughter. “I participated in cultural programming and volunteering and I pledged a sorority. I would take her everywhere and she became the baby of the campus.”
Jaidah’s father, who was Phillips’ high school sweetheart and whom she would go on to marry, also moved to Knoxville and helped care for Jaidah as Phillips fulfilled her dream as a first-generation college student.
Phillips said she had countless “blessings” along the way of people who stepped in to help, from professors who allowed Jaidah to attend classes occasionally to a day care director who allowed Phillips to pay Jaidah’s tuition by semester instead of by month because Phillips only received financial aid payments once a semester.
“Everyone supported me and I couldn’t have done it without them. I know that for a fact,” said Phillips, who lived in off-campus housing with Jaidah. “I was nervous about having her there and what everyone would think and also about not being able to care for her and having to send her back with my mom and her really not know me.”
“If I had not had the village and the support system of all of my peers and friends and sorority sisters, I couldn’t have done it,” she said. “All of that encouraged me and just pushed me to keep going.”
Phillips said her own motivation to finish college with a toddler in tow was to provide Jaidah with the future she deserved.
“My parents gave me a great life and I knew that she deserved it no matter what tough decisions I had made,” she said. “I wanted to sacrifice whatever it was going to take to give her the life, the opportunities and exposure that she deserved.”
Jaidah, who was by then 4 years old, was right by her side again when Phillips graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2008.
“At that time, that was the greatest achievement for me, to be able to get a college degree,” said Phillips. “That made it mean so much more for me, to have my parents there and especially to have [Jaidah] by my side to allow her to see that she can do anything, that if I could achieve my dream, she could dream even wilder.”
Phillips returned to Memphis after graduating and started a career as a television news reporter and anchor. She also went on to marry Jaidah’s father and have three more children together.
She said she is beyond proud to know that Jaidah will now get her own college experience when she attends Texas Southern University this fall.
“When we moved back to Memphis, she was still a toddler, and I told her, ‘Jaidah, you’re going to go to college one day and you’re going to do this and that, and she said, ‘I’ve already been to college,"” Phillips said, laughing at the memory. “Seeing her off to college is probably going to be one of the toughest moments that I’m going to have because no longer will we have that relationship where she’s right by my side.”
“She’s been by my side since I was 17 years old. Now that she’s 17, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is real,"” she said. “I want her to dream and do whatever it is that she wants to do as she soars to new heights.”
Phillips now works as the chief of communications for the Shelby County Public Schools, where her job is to find and tell the inspiring stories of the county’s students. She said she didn’t fully realize she had her own inspirational story until the response she received on social media.
“With the success of my story, I want others to really see hope and be inspired,” she said. “I know that education is a way out. No matter what you’re born into, whatever trauma you’ve been through, I know that education is that opportunity to take you to the next step and the passport to a brighter future.”
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