Main Content

In her own words: VTSU Johnson student discovers her career with VSAC’s help

Written by
VSAC Staff

February 8, 2024


Jess Kimball

I’ve always loved to learn, but I never thought I would go to college. As a teen, I was more interested in getting out into the working world, and once I’d established a successful career, I thought, why would I need to go to college now?

But as I got deeper into my chosen field of birth and postpartum support, I wanted to learn more and go further. Thanks to funding opportunities from VSAC, I’ve taken the next step in my career, and I’ve also started to support others’ growth in the field. This is my story.

Growing up in the Carolinas, I excelled in school, taking high school classes starting in eighth grade through a gifted and talented program. However, I was also very independent, and I didn’t want anything to hold me back, including traditional school.

Creating a destiny

From a young age, I was ambitious, starting my first “business” at 11 years old, when I created a website for my neighborhood babysitting work. Taking care of other young families, and the birth stories I heard from my mother growing up, inspired my strong interest in becoming a doula, which is a caregiver who can attend and support births and postpartum recoveries.

I’m one of seven children – right in the middle of two older brothers and one older sister, and two younger brothers and one younger sister, all of us currently ranging in age from 15 to 28. I wanted to learn more about the birth and postpartum experience, and I wanted to be there to witness that miracle and to support growing families.

By the time I was 16, I had graduated high school early, I had a job working with a newborn photographer, and I had become a certified birth and postpartum doula. I was ready to get out in the world, and I decided to launch my future in Vermont. Why Vermont? I knew I didn’t want to be in the south, but I did want to go somewhere where I had “people.”

I had grandparents in Springfield, Vermont, with whom I had connected in middle school and had visited often on school breaks. Even as a young girl, I loved the lifestyle, and I felt like New England had a culture of independence and being in control of your own destiny that my hometown didn’t share. So I bought a tiny camper, my dad and I fixed it up (and I painted it bright purple), and I drove to Vermont.

Pursuing passion

After moving north, I supported families (and myself) by working as a postpartum doula, offering new mothers lactation education and overnight caregiving relief. While my doula career was very successful and gave me the opportunity to travel to France and Hawaii, I wanted to do more, and I realized I was interested in pursuing board certifications as a lactation consultant and as a midwife.  

Well, to meet those goals, I needed at least a few college courses. So my decision to not go to college started to evolve.

At first, I committed to taking just the required anatomy and physiology classes, not getting a degree. I enrolled in online courses through the Community College of Vermont, which gave me the flexibility I needed with my work.

While the CCV program fit nicely into my schedule – I could learn when the baby was sleeping, no matter what time it was – I did have to overcome a financial hurdle. Since I had left home at 16, I thought – as a 19-year-old independent adult – that I would qualify for a dependency override which would have made me an independent student for financial aid purposes. However, I was initially told I did not, so I needed help covering my tuition. Fortunately, VSAC awarded me an Advancement Grant, which paid the majority of my tuition that first semester.

The right questions bring the best answers

My next hurdle was quite unexpected: what do you do when you’ve used up your Advancement Grant for the year, but you fell in love with school after one semester and you want to keep going? That was the situation I found myself in. I handled it the way I usually handle obstacles: keep asking questions.

It had never seemed quite right to me that I didn’t qualify for a dependency override, which would have made me eligible for a lot more funding. So when a financial aid officer called me one day to discuss a balance on my account, I asked them to double-check that. It turned out that I did, in fact, qualify for that override. (I’m guessing that because I was 19 years old, just like all the other freshmen in my class, I must have appeared like a “regular student,” not someone who had special circumstances.) Anyway, that override changed everything, because it made me eligible for a federal Pell Grant, scholarships, and additional funding through VSAC’s 802Opportunity program.

In order to access that funding, I needed to declare a major, so I chose behavioral health – though I still wasn’t committed to going all the way. But partway through, I asked: If I want to earn my associate degree, what am I looking at? It turns out the answer was just one more semester. So I did it – and I kept going! I ended up transferring to VTSU Johnson, and I’m on track to get my Bachelor’s in Psychological Science this spring. After years of insisting I would never go to college, I’ll be graduating this spring, earning my degree in just three years with no student debt.

From college to career

During my time enrolled, I traveled to work in a hospital in Honduras, was a three-time guest speaker on perinatal mental health at Keene State College, became a Certified Lactation Counselor, earned a certification in Perinatal Mental Health, formed a nonprofit supporting postpartum families across Vermont, published multiple books and articles, and mentored other students. None of that would have happened if I had not taken courses at CCV, and I would not have taken those courses without funding from VSAC.

I look at my career now and see how heavily college influenced it. My advice to anyone thinking about going to school, but unsure about finances, is to keep asking questions and know that you do have options. The counselors at VSAC are there to help you find out what those options are.

Jess Kimball, CLC, PMH-C, VSAC Grant Recipient, Curtis Scholarship Recipient, CCV Alumni