(UPDATE: See Florida Times-Union front page story on Patricia Tracey at http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2012-05-04/story/once-homeless-teen-now-ju-grad-40-gpa)
By Phillip Milano
When Jacksonville University student Patricia Tracey walks from one side of the stage to the other this Saturday to receive her diploma, she’ll be doing it not only for herself, but for her siblings and everyone else who’s strived to make it to the other side of homelessness and despair.
Tracey, 31, a Navy veteran, will take home a B.B.A. in Accounting and a 4.0 GPA, but also the much-earned respect of her peers and teachers for overcoming many obstacles, snaring numerous honors and volunteering to help others.
Her story is one of triumph over loneliness, family trials and poverty.
“When I was 14, I didn’t see how I’d make it to adulthood, and never saw myself getting to age 30,” she said. “Now I tell folks who are going through hard times that it does get better.”
In fact, growing up impoverished with an alcoholic mother, Tracey’s first glimmer of hope came at 11 in South Florida, when she heard the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by Jacksonville’s James Weldon Johnson. She became inspired by its message that with hard work and perseverance, life does improve.
Things would have to get much worse for her, though, before they got better.
Kicked out of her home in her teen years, she found herself on the streets and homeless by 17, scraping by, living with family on and off and scrounging for food.
Even before then, trying to find her next meal had already become a major part of her young life.
“My coping mechanism was to try to be a mother to my twin and even my older brother. I babysat, walked dogs, anything to earn money for food. We’d go to food pantries. The worst was when my dad left when I was 14. I’d go out and try to get a box of pasta for $1, cook it and put some butter and salt or pepper on it. That was our meal.”
Fast forward, and Tracey spent her young adulthood working waitressing and contract jobs before joining the Navy, with stops in Jacksonville from 2004-07 and a tour in Bahrain from 2007-09.
She received a scholarship to Jacksonville University, and also benefited from the G.I. Bill.
Now she’s in several honor societies, including the Omicron Delta Kappa national leadership honor society, the Green Key Honorary Leadership Society at Jacksonville University, the Brumos Circle of Excellence at JU, the Phi Kappa Phi honor society and the Beta Gamma Sigma business society at JU.
“The JU community is incredible and a huge part of my success,” she said. “You get to know the other students, and the teachers really care to help you succeed, whatever your learning style is. Everyone had my back.”
One of those who did was Dr. Ruth O’Keefe, professor of accounting in the Davis College of Business, who taught Tracey in four classes. She described Tracey as a “born leader who is very other-centered.”
“I’ve had thousands of students over 30-plus years, and she is at the very top in every way,” O’Keefe said. “She passes on what she knows to fellow students and to others coming after her. She pays it forward, and it’s beautiful to watch.”
One way of passing on what she’s learned to other students is through her work as a business tutor at the Tutoring and Learning Center at Jacksonville University.
When she’s not providing guidance in accounting or finance, she’s volunteering, often for the Jacksonville non-profit Horse Sense and Sensitivity (see http://horsesensejax.org), which provides therapeutic horse-riding for people with disabilities.
Tracey also was a “Shavee” for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in September 2011. She raised $2,690 for the group and also had her head shaved to stand in solidarity with youths battling cancer (see http://www.stbaldricks.org/participants/Patty).
Her message of hope for youths?
“There’s lots I can’t control, but the things I can’t control will change, and the things I can control, I must make the best of them so I can take advantage and succeed,” she said. “In the end, you have to have hope for the future — and perseverance for now.”