jessica kehl

Working toward her dream

Not your typical, traditional college student, nor your typical adult learner, honors nursing student Jessica Kehl has overcome a multitude of personal challenges over the course of many years on her path to Penn State Scranton.
By: Amy Gruzesky

On a random day last semester, Penn State Scranton student Jessica Kehl went to her mailbox and saw an envelope from the Penn State Scranton chancellor’s office. When she opened it, she was surprised and extremely flattered to see a personal letter to her from Chancellor Marwan Wafa.

“When I received the letter in the mail from Dr. Wafa congratulating me on making the dean’s list, I was truly over the moon! I cried, to be honest with you. My eldest daughter was home and she came out to see why I was crying. I showed her the letter and she jumped up and said, ‘Mom, see, you can do it! You are so much smarter than you give yourself credit for’.”

Kehl was so touched and moved by the letter that it prompted her to write an email to Wafa directly, thanking him for acknowledging her accomplishment and sharing how being at Penn State Scranton was helping to change her life for the better. She also framed it, and proudly displays it on her office wall in her home.

“My eldest daughter wanted me to frame the Dean’s List letter. At first, I said no, we don’t need to do that. But then I thought about it and decided, I did want to frame it, for a few reasons. Two of the reasons are: I want to remind my daughters, that no matter what, they can achieve anything they set their minds to. Also, I wanted to look at it while I am working in the office and see it and remind myself, ‘I can do this.’ It doesn’t matter what anyone in the past has said or done to me. I am a strong woman. A survivor. I will get through school and at my graduation, the look in my three daughters' eyes, I cannot wait for that day to come -- for them to see their Mommy graduate college.”

She plans to apply to Penn State Scranton’s nursing program this October and is praying that she is accepted into the nursing program and realize her dream of becoming a registered nurse.

The Path to Penn State Scranton

Not your typical traditional college student, nor your typical adult learner, Kehl has had to overcome a multitude of personal challenges over the course of many years on her path to Penn State.

After high school, she originally enrolled at Luzerne County Community College. She stayed there for three semesters before preparing to transfer to Philadelphia to study pharmacy at another college with her best friend.

But life had other plans, and Kehl ended up not going to Philadelphia and instead became a mom to her first daughter, who is now 17 and whom Kehl said is the “greatest gift of all.” Despite a strong desire to continue her college education, Kehl stopped attending college to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom while her daughter’s father worked two jobs to support them. That was a decision Kehl and her daughter’s father decided on together.

“He knew my strong desire to continue my college education. It just never would work out for me to get back to college. There was always one issue or another. It just didn’t fit into the scheduling for me to go back to college. Each year that passed and I wasn’t enrolled in college hurt my heart more and more. I wanted to complete my degree for me. But also, for my daughter. I wanted her to see that a woman can do anything she puts her mind to.” Kehl was not willing to sacrifice what she felt was a gift -- being able to stay home full time with her daughter. “Financially, to have put her in daycare full time for me to go to college full time, wouldn’t have worked out for her father and myself. I dedicated my life to being the best mom I could be.”

Eight years after the birth of her first daughter, she welcomed another little girl and then two years after that, another daughter. Unfortunately, her marriage ended after the birth of her second daughter. Kehl did her best to keep a smile on her face and stay positive for her two daughters throughout this very difficult time.

Unexpectedly, Kehl began a friendship with a man whom she fell madly, deeply in love with; a man she went to high school with. Kehl felt that he was the person God sent to her and her two daughters for them to heal and for them to be shown that there is happiness after sadness. From the first time this gentleman was introduced to Kehl’s daughters, they had an instant bond. He had such a gentle way with my daughters and treated them as his own, Kehl said.

Kehl and he then welcomed a little girl into the world -- a dream come true for Kehl. She always said, "if I were to have children, I pray to God that he sends me healthy little girls." Kehl is the eldest of four. Her three younger siblings are boys. Needless to say, that is why she wanted girls. Sadly, her relationship with her third little girl’s father came to an end. This was not only devastating to her but also to her children, she said, particularly her eldest daughter, as she was older and had a very close relationship with her baby sisters’ dad.

A defining relationship

To this day, it is very hard for Kehl to look back on that relationship and not get sad. She feels that if she only could have been “more perfect” she could have made it work. For a period of time, Kehl stayed single and focused on herself and her children without looking for a new relationship. Then, she met someone who swept her off her feet. If only she had had a crystal ball to let her see what was to come with that relationship, she said. Numerous people told her to not get involved with this individual, but Kehl is a believer that you must form your own opinions of someone. “You can’t just listen to others about what they think about someone or something.”

Kehl went forward with the relationship. She was very cautious, as she did not want her daughters to become attached to someone and have the relationship not work out, and cautious for herself as well. She was still deeply saddened by the loss of the relationship with her third daughter’s father; but, as a self-described hopeless romantic, she was hopeful that there could be someone out there that would love her and her daughters. When she met this man, she thought, ‘this is it!’ Someone who doesn’t judge her for having three children by two different fathers. Someone who accepted her for who she was. "If I was ever wrong about someone, this was that someone,” she said. This was, by far, the worst relationship she has ever been in in her life.

Kehl was dedicated to making this relationship work but felt like the biggest failure -- no matter what she did, it never was right. However, she continued to put her children first, always. She tried her very best to hide what she was dealing with. But the ones close to her, especially her eldest daughter, saw what was happening. Before their eyes, Kehl was changing. She wasn’t outgoing or happy; she seemed quiet, shy, isolated; she was controlled on a level that even Kehl did not think was possible. The mother of three found herself in the throes of an extremely abusive relationship.

“When I was in that relationship, I was completely reliant on him for everything. When I say everything, I mean everything. From allowing me to have money to get my daughters things or for me to get my hair done. My phone was constantly watched to ‘make sure I wasn’t doing anything behind his back.’” I was questioned if I was at the grocery store too long, if I ran into a friend that was a male, if the mailman spoke to me. Each and every thing I did, I was questioned about. But this individual knew just what to do. He was smart and knew I was a forgiving person. He would buy me flowers and give me cards; plan special outings not just for the two of us, but for my girls, myself and him as well. “He always roped me back in.”

Kehl said there were numerous incidences of physical, verbal and mental abuse throughout that relationship, and it took her quite some time before she was able to remove herself from it. She tried to always look at the situation and see what she could have done differently. That way she would be educated to not make the same “mistake” again. “But, it never worked,” she said.

Kehl felt that she was so blessed to have this man in her life, that when he was “bad” towards her, she took it personally -- that she needed to change something about herself to make him happy. It was a dear friend of Kehl’s, whom she had confided in about what was happening, that suggested she contact the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) in Scranton.

A Lifeline

It took time before she had the courage to call and speak to someone there. To open up and let someone know what was happening. Eventually she did contact the WRC and spoke with them many times about an escape plan. Reaching out to WRC saved Kehl’s life.

“People have a misconception that you can leave so easily. For some, they can; but for others, like myself, I wasn’t able to. I was financially dependent on him. I had no vehicle, as he got rid of mine. My cell phone was in his name, so it was technically his, as he reminded me on a weekly basis. After quite a long time, I finally escaped,” she said.

“When I left, I left with very few possessions -- just what I could carry. I left the cell phone as well, being it wasn’t truly mine but also, I did not want him to attempt to try to track me down or call me.” He hacked into my personal email that I had for over 10 years and my one social media account that I did use and changed the passwords on both of these accounts. Ultimately, this made it impossible for me to regain access to these accounts and for me to access my information and precious photos of my daughters and family members.

To this day, I have never been able to regain access to either the email or the social media account to retrieve the photos. That still hurts me deeply. Photos are not replaceable. But I did learn that you must print out your photos quite frequently to avoid a situation like this ever happening.

Thankfully, since that dark time, Kehl and her three daughters have rebuilt their lives. Kehl has learned and has taught her daughters, “it is not what things you have, it is who we have that is important. Things are just that, things, and they are replaceable; but people, they are not replaceable.”

Kehl credits the WRC for helping her get out of her situation and has nothing but praise for the non-profit, with which she has been involved with.

“The Women’s Resource Center is the most amazing group of women. They are there for you 24/7. I can attest that I have had to call them for help at all hours of the day and night. They never judge you. They help you as much as they can.” Kehl has been asked by WRC to speak about her experience. She was in two separate videos that were shown at WRC events, including "Great Chefs".

Dealing with the lasting effects

But getting out of that situation is just one part of Kehl’s story. Her struggles did not end once she got out of her situation --- the experience left her suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), along with panic attacks and extreme anxiety.

It also leaves her with sometimes crippling self-doubt. “Due to the very abusive relationship, many times I doubt myself,” she admits. “And when things like this Dean’s List letter arrives, I sometimes have a combination of two things happen. For a minute I am proud of myself! But then, the bad memories of the awful words that were said to me so many times creep back into my mind. I just continue to try my hardest to work past the emotional abuses.” So many people just cannot understand what I mean by that statement. But for someone, male or female, who has been through a situation -- either the same or similar to mine -- they will understand where I am coming from.

Kehl works weekly with a therapist to cope with those conditions and has begun trying meditation. Due to Covid-19, she had to switch to remote sessions via Zoom, but once she can begin in-office visits with her therapist again, she is also going to try a newer therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), recently reported to be used by Britain’s Prince Harry.

“My therapist says it is possible for us to do it via Zoom, but it will be much more effective if she can see my entire body while we do this therapy, rather than just my upper body.”

However, she is not letting her past get in the way of pursuing her dream of a college degree and building a better life for her and her daughters.

Taking the plunge

“I hesitated for quite some time before I applied to Penn State Scranton,” she said. “I felt I would be out of place, being I would be much older than the traditional students. I am the mother of three amazing daughters, ages 17, eight, and six.

“I chose Penn State Scranton for a few reasons. One, I am a lifelong resident of Scranton. I have always been a huge supporter and fan of PSU. I have family members that attended PSU’s (University Park) campus many years ago. I have always wanted to go back to college and pursue a nursing degree. My dream is to become a registered nurse. But I did not want to go to a two-year school and graduate with an associate degree. I wanted to go to a four-year school and graduate with my BSN in nursing.”

Kehl chose nursing as her major because she has a passion for helping others and was already a nursing assistant at Geisinger Community Medical Center (GCMC) in Scranton, where she was “surrounded by registered nurses” when she first started working there.

“That made it crystal clear to me that I needed to bite the bullet and apply to PSU Scranton,” she said. “I had spoken to a few of my friends that are RNs at GCMC, and they told me the pros and cons of going to a two-year school versus going to a four-year school. I immediately knew pursuing a four-year degree was what I wanted to do. I also have decided to minor in psychology. I have always had a huge interest in psychology. At first, choosing a minor wasn’t something I had even thought about. But one day, it crossed my mind and I knew that I had to declare psychology as my minor.”

“I love my job at Geisinger,” Kehl said. “I see so many different things each and every time I work. I feel working there is one of the best places I can be working while going to school to be a registered nurse.”

Not always easy, but rewarding

There are also more day-to-day struggles that the single mom faces while attending school full-time in terms of time, workload and finances.

“It absolutely is a juggling act. When you hear people say, ‘It takes a village,’ that is spot on true! I never ever want my children to think back on their childhood and think I wasn’t there for them enough. I also never want my eldest daughter to think I had her help with her sisters too much. For me to get my schoolwork completed, I do it at all times throughout the day. Any minute I can spare to do some work, I take it. As an example, when my younger two daughters are at dance class, while I wait for them, I am always doing schoolwork. I stay up as late as need be to accomplish what needs to be done for my precious daughters and make myself either a cup of hot tea or a cup of coffee and continue on with more schoolwork.”

Adding to that challenging juggling act was the Covid-19 pandemic that began in March 2020. The statewide shutdown that occurred at that time forced both Kehl and her daughters to switch to remote learning – meaning she now had to not only do her own courses and schoolwork but also help her daughters with theirs as well.

“One of the challenges with having the girls work virtually from home was juggling when they had their live sessions. There would be times when my six- and eight-year-old would have a live session at the same time. I would take my six-year-old and we would go to our kitchen table to work. My eight-year-old would stay in our office and work in there. When school transitioned to fully virtual for both them and myself, I made a spare bedroom into an office. “I have my own space in there, as do my two younger daughters. My eldest daughter created a set up in her bedroom and completed her work in there. I would check on her at least six times a day to make sure she is truly working!”

The other major challenge is juggling finances. Kehl does qualify for financial aid and takes out the maximum allowed in student loans so that she has money for both school and living expenses. She also applies for every scholarship that she qualifies for. “I wish there were a way for a domestic abuse survivor/single mom to be able to get more financial help,” she said.

“My daughters never do without. They will forever come first. But it would be nice if I could ease the financial burden for school. I won’t lie, there have been quite a few times where I have had to make a pros and cons list regarding continuing school for myself. I have extreme “Mom Guilt” when I have to be away from my girls for my classes. Also, the finances are just hard to juggle. There is no way to say it differently.

"We all know, everyone has bills. I pride myself that I have always been a bargain hunter. As I have grown older, I have been better and better at that. But there are things that my daughters need and there is no discounted sale price on it; for example, their extracurricular activities. I do not want my girls to suffer because of decisions I have made in my life. I will do without to make sure that my daughters have what they need. Always."

That doesn’t stop her from looking toward the future. For now, she would like to continue working at GCMC and then continue working there as a registered nurse after graduation, eventually continuing her education even further to achieve her goal of becoming a nurse practitioner with a focus in psychology.

And, while she works towards those goals, she is also an advocate for the WRC, participating in two of their informational videos that were shown at two separate benefit events to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to give hope to others who are in those types of situations. Having survivors make a video is very touching for a possible donor to watch. For me, personally, I cannot get through a conversation about what I have survived and not tear up. There are moments when I am stronger than other times. But many times, I easily break down and cry.

She also participated with the campus’ HDFS Community Club in collecting donations for the WRC. “Something extra I did myself was I made about 25 inspiring cards for women. My eldest daughter helped me make them too. She and I bonded over making these inspirational cards for women going through something.”

Kehl said she is a huge advocate for women and their safety. "Sometimes another woman just needs to hear another woman’s story to give her some strength to start her plan to escape. When a woman first leaves her abuser, that is the most dangerous time.”

That life-changing letter

Since getting that first letter from Chancellor Wafa when she made the Fall 2020 Dean’s List, Kehl has also made the Spring 2021 Dean’s List – resulting in another letter from Wafa -- to her proud delight. “For me, this is a tremendous achievement! Two consecutive semesters on the dean’s list! I also was awarded a Penn State Scranton Trustee scholarship. When I found out about the scholarship, I cried and cried. I recall submitting the form for financial aid. I prayed I would receive something. But I have trained myself over the years to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. When I received the letter letting me know about what I was going to receive, I truly was so grateful.”

I hope that anyone who reads this article takes away from this that just because someone may look “okay” on the outside, you have no idea in the world what is going on with them on “the inside,” Kehl said. “You do not know what struggles they are facing on a daily basis. People are so quick to judge a book by its cover. And I admit, there was a time in my life I did that too. But at 39 years old, I know to not ever judge anyone, ever. I have come to appreciate everything in life. Sure, I wish that at almost 40 years old I would already be a nurse practitioner. But, that was not the plan God had for me. As a devout Roman Catholic, I truly believe that God has a plan for me. I have become stronger than I have ever been previously. Everyone who has been there for me, I am eternally grateful.”

Having benefitted from the help of others, Kehl said she is always willing to help anyone in a similar circumstance. “If anyone at all would like to reach out to me personally, I am completely okay with that. I would love to help someone, in any way possible that I can. I can always offer a listening ear. No judgement from me, ever.”

She has also joined the campus’ Peer Mentor program, to encourage and help new students with their social and academic needs and acclimate to college life and was recently invited to be part of the campus’ Honors Program.

On a broader level, she wishes that there could be more financial opportunities for domestic violence survivors. As a single mom of three daughters and a survivor herself, she knows personally that life is expensive and how difficult things can be financially for women who have to start over on their own.

And, to Chancellor Wafa, Kehl had a personal heartfelt message: “Dr. Wafa, you continue to inspire me to be a better woman each and every day. I am so proud to be a student at Penn State Scranton. We Are!