Bell Co. teen thriving in first semester

Last time we checked, Jessica Caldwell was in paradise.

Looks as if she still is.

Caldwell was a week into her first semester as a freshman at Lindsey Wilson College when we profiled the Bell County 19-year-old who had never expected to be there.

But she had, she said, seen enough in her years to know she wanted to be self-sufficient and never to be dependent on welfare. Through her hard work and the support of a counselor at Bell County High School, Caldwell was awarded a $2,500 Mission of Hope scholarship and cobbled together financial aid — grants, work study and loans — so she could do the unimaginable and be the first in her family to go to college.

Caldwell had spent many of her teenage years bravely and, without complaint, being mother and housekeeper for her younger siblings and disabled father. Her mother, who has substance-abuse problems, has been out of the family home for years. Jessica's was not the likeliest of success stories. Even she had come to believe what others had told her, that she was not smart enough to go to college.

A semester in, and she is proving plenty smart, plenty good enough to be there.

"College is everything that I thought it would be and then some," she says. "It was difficult to get used to the first couple of weeks, but then it just all came together. I'm having a blast."

She says she tries to not stay up too late because she has to go to classes early, then has to work on campus in the afternoon. She likes her teachers who, she says with some astonishment, actually "listen to you."

She seemed to think she'd be under more stress but, surprisingly, isn't.

She is, in some ways, like every other freshman girl at any other school in the country. She gushes about her roommates, about how sometimes they're too loud for their neighbors in the dorm and about how "the friends I have made, they are like my family away from my family. I can honestly say that they are going to be my friends after college."

She has kept her boyfriend, Charlie, from back home. He is applying to come to Lindsey Wilson in the fall "so he can get a good education and," she adds, "be with me."

Other things have happened in her life that look equally hopeful. She plans to see her mother over winter break "because no matter what she has done in the past, she still is my mother."

Unlike other freshman girls, Caldwell had a story written about her that ran on the front page of the newspaper.

Because of it, dozens upon dozens of readers responded with cards, letters and money. An anonymous scholarship fund was set up for Caldwell at the college. It contains $2,475.

Caldwell was, she says, "shocked that so many people wanted to help me. I couldn't believe that people who haven't even met me were there for me."

She says she thanks God every day for "my angels."

"They gave me more than just their gifts; I could care less about the money I get. What I care for is what they have to say. They encourage me every day. If I feel bad or like I cannot do something, I turn to their cards and letters of encouragement. They have affected my life more than they will ever know."

She says she wants all of them to be at her graduation in four years, so they'll see what she has done.

Because they believed she could.