The short walk Jennifer Simms took across the stage at commencement in December served as a fitting metaphor for the journey she had shared with two very special members of the audience.
Her son, Chris Spearman, was there. Simms had him when she was only 14 and raised him as a single mother as she earned her associate degree from St. Louis Community College, before she progressed to the University of Missouri–St. Louis and earned a BSBA in 1998.
Her daughter, Christian Simms, was there. Jennifer was pregnant with Christian while earning her bachelor’s, and she strove to serve as a steady influence in the lives of both children after their father passed away in 2008.
All three struggled through Chris’ battle with kidney disease and the end-stage renal failure that took hold in 2013 – shortly after Simms had started her PhD program at UMSL – and forced him onto dialysis while he awaited a life-saving transplant.
One that Christian would eventually provide three years later, as soon as she was old enough.
“That’s the unconditional love I taught my kids, the importance of being there for yourself and each other,” said Simms, who started her 20th year working for UMSL Information Technology Services in April. “My daughter said, ‘I did what I could to save my brother.’ I told her, ‘You saved your mom, too.’”
Simms often thought about giving up on her PhD during Chris’ kidney issues. Holding down a full-time job, caring for a sick child and pursuing a doctorate all just seemed like too much at times.
But she knew she had to persevere. It’s what she’s always taught her children.
“They tell you that when you have children at such a young age, you end up a statistic and all these bad things,” Chris said. “To see my mom do the opposite – the complete opposite – she grinds for everything. It’s an inspiration, no lie. That’s why I feel like I stay pushing: because of everything that she’s gone through.”
A promise kept
A sports physical at the start of Chris’ freshman year of high school revealed that he had an abnormally high volume of blood and protein in his urine. After the levels tested even higher the next day, physicians ordered a biopsy of his kidney and diagnosed him with chronic glomerulonephritis.
Basically, his blood cells were secreting protein to attack an illness that wasn’t there.
“He had a cold and, when his cold was cured, his body kept attacking itself,” Simms said. “The protein was supposed to stop seeping out of his kidneys. His body didn’t realize that the cold was gone.”
For the next 12 years, Chris was able to manage the disease with medication. Then his kidneys started to fail.
He started dialysis treatments every other day for at least four hours a day. Doctors ruled out Simms as a potential donor because she had high blood pressure, and the procedure would be risky for her. Christian was only 15 at the time – too young to be a donor – but she promised her brother that, when she turned 18, she would give him a kidney.
Simms, who had been accepted into the UMSL College of Education’s educational leadership and policy studies PhD program the fall before her son took a turn, started doing everything she could to get Chris on transfer lists, even traveling to Minnesota and heading to Iowa.
“I hated to see my mom cry because of what was going on,” Chris said. “It used to bother me, the fact that she used to say, ‘I can’t do anything to help you out.’ I told her, ‘You’re doing enough. I just need you to be calm.’”
On April 11, 2016, Christian’s 18th birthday, she started the process of testing her kidneys to see if she’d be a match for Chris. On Nov. 29, she and her brother went under the scalpel.
“I never thought twice about it, never was nervous about it,” Christian said. “I never thought it was scary, never had that feeling. I just wanted him to be OK. The only nervous part that I had was the kidney not accepting into his body: that we were going to do this and something was not going to go right after that.
A little more than two years later, Chris is back to feeling like his old self. He still has to take medication to manage his condition, but his sister’s kidney is performing like a champ.
The ordeal drew the family even closer.
“Those two women are the loves of my life,” Chris said. “My sister has always been a giving person. But to save me, I almost didn’t even want her to do it because I’ve always had that mentality where I want to protect them. And now she’s protecting me.”
‘I’ll take her’
A little more than a year after earning her bachelor’s degree, Simms saw a job posting as a department assistant in UMSL Campus Computing at the Faculty Resource Center, which is now called the Learning Resource Lab.
She applied and, after the first day of interviews – dealing with the interpersonal aspects of the job – she liked her chances. After the second day, the technical interview, that feeling faded.
“I did not know how to turn on the computer, what I was looking at, really didn’t even know if it was Windows 98,” Simms said. “But I was persistent. I was trying.”
Joe Rottman, associate dean of graduate and international programs in the UMSL College of Business Administration and a professor of information systems, called her back a couple days later. She assumed he was going to inform her that she didn’t get the job.
That was a flawed assumption.
“He saw something in me, and he knew that I wanted to try and that I’d learn this job,” Simms said. “That meant a lot to me. When you get that one yes, when you have people believing in you, you make good on that.”
Simms went on to become an IT manager in the Faculty Resource Center and, starting last year, she was one of four employees selected for the newly created role of IT portfolio and relationship manager. It’s her job to connect campus entities with IT resources to try and streamline workflow processes.
In her academic career, too, Simms is grateful for the chance an UMSL educator took on her.
She had taken three courses in the College of Education as a non-degree-seeking student when, in 2012, she decided she wanted to pursue a PhD. She envisioned a thesis project focused on the many and varied paths African American women take to senior academic leadership positions in higher education and what challenges they face along the way.
College of Education Associate Dean Shawn Woodhouse, then an assistant professor of higher education administration, saw potential.
“She sat in that interview and said, ‘I’ll take her,’” Simms said. “Those words echoed every time I wrote, I prayed, I sat in a classroom. She believed in me.”
With her PhD in hand, Simms said she hopes to someday be an administrator like Woodhouse and the other women she studied for her thesis. Simms is getting her start by teaching UMSL education courses as an adjunct. Her first was Critical Issues in Student Affairs this spring.
Simms said her experience offers her a unique insight into the world of higher education.
“I became a mother before I became a woman. Society discounts you for that,” Simms said. “They don’t know who you are internally and the fight that you have inside of you. I never paid attention to the naysayers. I paid attention to what was in front of me. I don’t think anything in this life is meant to break us. It’s how you look at your situation, to make you stronger.”
She strives to be a living, breathing example of that for her children. The lesson has sunk in.
“She probably gets so tired of hearing me tell her how phenomenal she is,” Christian said. “I’ve watched her be strong, stay focused and want to work even harder. Even with everything that she had going on in her life, she still stayed true to herself and her goals. I just think that’s amazing.”
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