By David Miller
College is the ultimate simulation for what it takes to be a grown-up.
Class, studying, work, social life, initiative – the greater the balance, the greater the experience.
But for a small population of students, like University of Alabama senior Kaitlyn Jacoby, growing up is a lesson that began well before college.
Jacoby, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education Dec. 16 at Coleman Coliseum, was orphaned at the age of 16 after both her mother and father died of cancer.
Jacoby’s mother, Lori, was diagnosed with brain cancer in April 2008 and died a year later. In January 2011, Kaitlyn’s father, Kevin, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He died just one month later.
“I just remember saying, ‘this can’t be happening,’” she said. “I was 12 when my mom was diagnosed, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around what was going on. It was like a dream. After that, Dad and I became really close … I knew it was cancer, but I didn’t realize it was stage 4. It was devastating.”
Jacoby became a ward of the state and lived with a friend while finishing her sophomore year in high school in Hoover. She then moved to Iowa, where her sister, Adriane, became her legal guardian.
“I took care of Mom when she got sick, and Dad traveled a lot for work, and all of that kicked back in when he got sick,” she said. “I knew it was hard for him to see me go through it again, but I wanted to show him I’d be OK. So everything didn’t really hit me until later.”
Jacoby said her two older sisters, Adriane and Allison, help fill the void for moments where families are typically united, like birthdays and holidays. But moments as wonted as hearing friends chatting with their parents on the phone or hearing a song by her father’s favorite artist – Frank Sinatra – can elicit memories, both happy and sad.
And as commencement draws nearer, Jacoby expects to run a gamut of emotions. Part of her desire to return to Alabama and attend UA was influenced by her father’s affinity for the school and campus.
“I still have my father’s voicemails and still listen to those occasionally,” she said. “Whenever we get a chance to go out to Pennsylvania – where they’re buried – we visit.
“My sisters and I talk about my parents a lot, which helps, but the holidays are especially hard to come through. And with graduation coming up … neither were at my high school graduation.”
Since her parents died, Jacoby has been keen to help create the same support systems that helped her through the losses and aided in her path to graduation.
She was a member of Alabama Reach, a UA support program for foster youths, orphans and homeless youths, which introduced her to other UA students with similar backgrounds.
Jacoby was director of UA’s branch of Camp Kesem, an organization that funds and runs a summer camp for children whose parents are battling cancer.
She is currently seeking a child life specialist internship for summer 2018, a requirement for a second bachelor’s degree that would allow her to work directly with children in a hospital setting. She spent Fall Semester 2017 interning at UA’s RISE Center, a school for infants and preschoolers with and without special needs.
“The experience with my parents had a great influence on my major,” she said. “Some people who’d gone through that may steer clear from hospitals and sick people, but it only pushed me closer. I love being in hospitals and making a difference in people’s lives.
“Being so young and having to take care of my mother, doing things most 12-year-olds wouldn’t do, and for it to happen again with my father, really pushed me to the medical field. Even with teaching, you’re helping people learn and grow, and both of my majors really reflect my life story and how I came up, how I went through trauma, but how it’s reflected in a positive light.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.