During the summer of 2013, Jaden Jackson boarded a non-stop, New York-bound plane in Portland, Oregon. After a long night of travel, the plane touched down just as the bright sun was rising over the ocean — the sherbet-colored sunrise in the distance was the first he’d ever seen.
With nothing but a brown suitcase wrapped in a rainbow strap with metallic beads and $200 worth of cash in his pocket, Jackson made his way to the small room he rented in Verona, New Jersey through stifling summer temperatures.
Six days later, Jackson secured much-needed employment at a nearby Italian restaurant. He began his freshman year at Montclair State University in September that year.
That summer marked a period of “firsts” for Jackson. In a short amount of time, he had to learn to support himself, navigate public transit and attend school on a campus nearly the same size as his hometown.
“It was very overwhelming. There were so many people and so many different cultures and so much to see and do and take in. I was blown away,” Jackson said, draping his arm across the back of a booth in Blanton Hall and speaking slowly, as if to savor the memories.
Now, three years after that momentous plane ride east, Jackson has created a life and a name for himself at Montclair State despite enduring long periods of homesickness, financial hardship and lacking a definite plan for his future.
He helped establish and lead a new fraternity, Alpha Chi Rho, which has grown to 31 members and boasts inclusivness as what sets them apart. The young organization received the 2015 “OUTstanding Student Organization” award from Montclair State’s LBGTQ Center.
Juan Santana, Vice President of Alpha Chi Rho believes Jackson has been an important influence in their success: “We had so many different challenges that we had to take on. We made mistakes, but we’ve accomplished so much as an organization.”
Jackson’s new-found determination and passion is admired among other members as well as his large group of friends. “We all have our flaws, and I think for what he’s been given, he’s definitely done the best job that he could do,” said member Alex Fromosky, 20. Nina Forbes, a member of Theta Kappa Chi, said, “[He]’s inspiring. I can’t imagine going across the country and leaving everything behind.”
In high school, Jackson had no immediate plans for college. His family had moved along the West Coast at least 15 times when he made his first trip to Montclair, New Jersey from the small, isolated town of Gold Beach, Oregon. The two-day excursion was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy, which proved to be a blessing in disguise when he visited Montclair State’s campus on a whim and felt an instant connection.
“I remember walking around campus and the wind was blowing, it was pouring down rain and there were garbage cans and trees flying around, but I loved it. I just knew that this was where I wanted to start my life,” Jackson said. Sure enough, Jackson gathered his courage and made the move to New Jersey that summer.
While lounging in Blanton Hall, wearing a grey Alpha Chi Rho sweatshirt and casually tapping on his American Flag-clad laptop, Jackson admitted that it was challenging working full-time, taking 18 credits and being far from family.
“It was difficult. I’m not going to lie. I made a lot of great friends, but I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do,” he said.
Jackson left behind his mother, Mary Hale; sister Azalea, now 15; and brother Dre, now 14, when he relocated to the East Coast. “That’s really been the hardest part,” he said, frowning. “I wake up every morning, and I miss them like crazy.”
Looking forward, Jackson intends to continue on to law school and is excited for the future of Alpha Chi Rho.
Despite all the challenges he has faced, when he looks back to all his “firsts,” from his first sunrise and snowfall to his first leadership position, Jackson smiled and said, “It’s truly been worth it in every way.”