Drawn Together

Jessica Searcy-McCray, at 50 years of age, is old enough to be the mother to her classmates at Nicholls State University. In fact, she is the mother of one of her classmates.

She and her youngest daughter, Alivia Searcy, enrolled at Nicholls in Fall 2019 to study art. Now, the pair make the hour-plus drive from East Baton Rouge Parish to the Thibodaux campus every week.

Jessica is one of a growing trend of nontraditional students coming back to school. Twenty-eight percent of the more than 900,000 students enrolled in a University of Louisiana System school are age 25 or older.

Two years ago, the only thought Jessica was giving college was sending her last of five children to one. She was happy as a wife, mother and grandmother of five. A self-described country girl from Port Allen, she handled everything around the house from the cooking to the yard work to minor home repairs. She had only just finished her GED at the insistence of a close friend.

Enter Alivia, her youngest child. On the surface, it is surprising they are so close. Alivia is shy, while Jessica is outgoing, often adding on to her daughter’s sentences.

“I don’t like to talk as much or volunteer for stuff. I’m not that bold,” Alivia says. “[Mom] likes to mix things up. I’m more reserved. I couldn’t stand going to spring band concerts, even though I was in them.”

As the baby of the family, Jessica kept the shy and reserved Alivia under her umbrella more than her other children. Though she is close with all of her children, she says there is a special bond with her youngest.

“I put more fun in being a parent when Alivia came along. I was 30 and had already reared four babies before her. I could enjoy it more,” Jessica says. “The first time, you’re nervous. But by the time you get to number five, it’s less worry and more enjoyment. That’s why we are probably closer; we can relate to each other more.”

"It’s more comfortable for me, and I have somebody I can rely on." – Alivia Searcy

Alivia looks at her mom and smiles, “I’m really comfortable with you. You’re goofy. That’s why.”

Alivia chose Nicholls for two reasons: she wanted to go somewhere different from her friends, and she wanted to study animation.

“The people here treat you as an individual, not as a product,” Alivia says. “Instead of going to school closer for another major I didn’t really want, I knew I could feel more comfortable doing what I actually loved. That’s why I chose Nicholls.”

Each has an interest in art. Jessica drew when she was younger and has started painting as an adult. Alivia began animating her own scenes while waiting for the new season of Steven Universe to come out.

“I like it because you can draw anything from your mind,” she says. “You’re drawing what you see in your head, but everyone else can see it in motion.”

As Alivia developed her passion and charted her path to college, her next step was to convince her closest confidante to come with her. It did not take much work.

“It wasn’t on my radar, but when she came to me, then I figured it was meant to be,” Jessica says. “God has spoken to me through her. I’m here because of her, my friends and my faith.”

Alivia adds, “She already got her GED, I figured she might as well hop on board and come with me.”

Jessica’s children and friends were supportive. Her husband was a little shocked. And, at times, so was she.

“On the first day of class, I said, ‘I really am in this classroom. I am losing my mind,’” she says. “It didn’t hit me until I was here. But once the ball started rolling, it became more apparent that I was on the right path.”

It has been a transition for both mother and daughter. For Jessica, it is being in a classroom surrounded by students, most of whom are not old enough to buy a beer.

“Not that I’m old, but at 50, you don’t think of stepping out as much to do this type of thing,” she says. “Somewhere along the line you talk to yourself and go over the reason you did it to begin with, and you remind yourself of your value. That’s when you get that second wind.”

After a brief pause she adds, “I will not give up, I have too much to prove to myself.”

For Alivia, it is a little more awkward. Especially when people she does not know on campus approach her, thinking she is her mom.

“People will look at me, and I’m wondering why they are staring at me and then it’s like, oh yeah, my mom goes here,” she says. “That’s the only thing I have to get used to.”

But they are settling into college life. Jessica is sculpting her college career at her own pace, looking for what fits her interests.

“I have a fascination with learning new techniques in painting, but I must say, I’m somewhat smitten with photography and creative writing. I find I might float toward that,” she says. “What’s reassuring is that I’m getting support from my classmates. For somebody that’s not on your same level in age, and who doesn’t know much about your past struggles in school to say, ‘You can do it,’ that’s a beautiful thing.”

Meanwhile, Alivia has her sights set on an eventual move to Japan. Japanese architecture is one of her earliest influences, even before she got into animation and anime. She even considered going to college in Japan.

It helps, they say, to have each other. Even though they do not discuss their days much on the drive to and from campus, they balance each other out and keep each other grounded.

“It’s more comfortable for me, and I have somebody I can rely on,” Alivia says.
Graduation is still a way off for the two sophomores, but walking across the stage together would be to Jessica like receiving a Grammy and Oscar at the same time.

Jessica admits it is too early to predict her future once she has a college degree. But what if her daughter asks her to come to Japan with her? Yeah, she says, she will probably go.

– Jacob Batte