When Jennifer Thuy-Tien McCall got pregnant at 15, her mother cried. One bad decision didn't mean McCall's life would be ruined, her mom said, but it would be harder to achieve her dreams.
McCall married the year after she got pregnant, and by the time she was 28 she had three children and a job with a property appraisal company. Her husband told her it was time to think about chasing her dream of going to law school, and he promised to pitch in to make it as easy for her as possible.
McCall's diploma from the Georgia State University College of Law testifies to her tenacity and the support of her whole family.
"Her ability to make the time commitment to the law practice was only possible by her family's commitment to her goal to be a lawyer," said attorney Steven Leibel, her law school mentor. "It was evident that without their love and support Jennifer would not have been able to spend the time to work and study."
She will work at his civil litigation firm in Dahlonega, Ga., after commencement.
McCall began preparing for the Law School Admission Test four years ago in secret because she was afraid of failing.
"It'll just be between us," her husband Josh McCall, an English instructor at the University of North Georgia, told her. "But I know we’ll all soon be celebrating your acceptance into law school."
When that happened, he asked her to teach him how to cook and he took over the household chores, with help from oldest daughters Mia and Kate. The youngest, Abby, was still an infant. McCall's father, Ban Nguyen, lives with them and helps with care giving.
The morning of her first class, facing an hour commute from Gainesville, Ga., McCall felt schoolchild jitters. "I am going to be so weird and different from the other students that I won’t make any friends," she told Mia. "The next three years are going to be stressful, and I’m afraid I’ll be lonely, too."
"I’m proud of you and I know you’re going to be fine," Mia replied.
McCall's first major test of work-life balance came the night before her first big test in law school. One daughter woke her up, crying about a problem with friends at school.
McCall stayed up with her. On that exam, she got her highest grade that semester.
"She is driven and disciplined without whining about it," said Christi M. Conner Tate, a paralegal with the Leibel firm. "Most days, she has this delightful way of seeming surprised that she is pulling it all off."
As her confidence grew, McCall sought and won a leadership role as Student Bar Association president. She will speak at commencement.
"She has really come into her strength. She has firm convictions, she likes to think about challenging issues and her new milieu has given her free rein to do so," her husband said. "She is happier, more fulfilled, than I’ve ever seen her. [Commencement] is a chance for her family to see her give the speech and to reflect on their contributions to her story."
Sacrifice is part of McCall’s family history. Her parents grew up poor in Vietnam "and risked a lot to come to America and it was their dream for us kids to be successful," said McCall, now 32.
Even as a pregnant teenager who had excelled in debate and journalism, McCall’s mom told her she could still strive for greatness.
"I hope that my children will see that with hard work and determination, attaining your dream is possible," McCall said.