Latifa Jackson has been tested throughout her entire life.

And these tests haven't just come in the classroom.

The 43-year-old native of St. Petersburg, Fla. is currently wrapping up her MBA degree from Saint Leo University. She and her husband, Rodney, have a blended family with five sons ranging in age from 20 to 25.

A Challenging Family Heritage

Jackson's grandparents, George and Vinnie Hurst, were born in the late 1910s and were from McCrea, Ga. and Vidalia, Ga., respectively. While they grew up in the post-Civil War era, they lived in an environment where they were treated like slaves.

"I remember them telling me their stories when I was a little girl," she says. "My grandfather wasn't allowed to go to school or learn how to read for a while. They had to live on a master's property and worked out in fields. It was called sharecropping, which was basically a different form of slavery."

Some of her grandfather's siblings were able to escape to Florida in the middle of the night, which is where many of her relatives settled.

Because her mother, Olivia Hurst, suffered from a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis starting in her late teens, Jackson was mostly raised by her grandparents. These circumstances made her grow up quickly.

"I started working at the age of 14," she says. "By high school, I was paying bills and maintaining the finances for our family."

She has also been inspired by many of her relatives who have served in the U.S. armed Forces.

"My uncle served in the Iraq war where he was awarded a Purple Heart due to his bravery," she says. "Seeing their sacrifices to our country really inspired me to work even harder growing up."

Caring for her sickly mother was what Jackson was simply born to do.

"Her joints would just flail with pain," she says. "For basically my entire life, I was in and out of hospitals with her. As an only child, I took care of her for many years. Since she was never able to work, my income was her lifeblood. Plus, I had a full-time job and five boys to raise. I've basically completed my degree in surgery rooms, nursing homes, rehab facilities and intensive care units."

It was something her mother, Olivia Hurst, told her shortly before she passed away that has always stuck with her.

"She told me that I had to promise her that I'd go back to school and finish my master's degree. I wrote an appeal and was able to regain entry back into the MBA program."

Jackson adds that working on a graduate degree gave her something else to focus on besides her mother's failing health.

"Saint Leo was a lifesaver because I could redirect my thoughts into something more positive," she confides. "It gave me purpose during one of the most difficult times in my life."

Discovering Saint Leo

She is a 1992 graduate of Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Fla. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration and Management from Eckerd College. While working for a former employer, she learned about Saint Leo since the university actually had a presence there.

"I worked for Tech Data Corporation for four years," she says. "They held some classes right at their location. One day, they had an education fair, and Saint Leo was there. I knew it was a pretty renowned university, and I had always heard great things about the school."

Upon enrolling, there was no hesitation when deciding to earn her MBA degree online rather than in a traditional classroom environment.

"Completing my MBA online was by far the best option due to having kids, an ill mom to take care of and a full-time job," she recalls. "The flexibility was essential to my overall success."

Professional Practice

Jackson says she's had the opportunity to work for a number of top employers throughout her career, including Franklin Templeton Investments, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and The Coca-Cola Company. She now works for BayCare Health System, one of the largest healthcare providers in Florida.

"I work as a retirement analyst in the human resources department where I've been for the past three years."

She hopes attaining an MBA will help her continue to move up the corporate ladder within increasingly rewarding roles.

A Fulfilling Graduate Education

She speaks highly of her experience as a Saint Leo graduate student.

"People will ask me how competitive it is to earn your MBA online," she says. "I would say an online degree is much more stringent because it requires a great deal of self-dedication. Unlike an on-campus classroom setting, there was never a professor in a classroom who would give me that look of accountability about not having completed my work. It's been all on me to get it done."

Her graduate advisor, Alexandra Kulawsky, has meant so much to her success.

"She has been an angel in disguise and a great accountability partner. When my mom died, I was in the middle of a semester. I reached out to Alex the day afterward and told her that I didn't think I could finish the class I was in. Alex jumped right in and helped me get through all of this. She has been pivotal in keeping me on track."

She says that Saint Leo truly represents the six core values it prides itself on.

"It's one thing to advertise your core values but another to actually exemplify them. I just can't say enough great things about Saint Leo."

Future Self-Employment?

>From an early age, Jackson was involved in a leadership group.

"In school, I was a member of Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA)," she says. "My desire to succeed has always been much greater than any desire to just give up."

Thanks to all of her work experience and self-motivation since she was a young teenager, Jackson is eyeing entrepreneurship in the future.

"What I've learned is that I always seem to be the go-to person in my family for help with various business tasks," she says. "I could see myself starting a consulting business for small- and medium-sized companies who are seeking someone to do professional business writing projects, obtain grants, draft business plans or maintain their financial record-keeping systems. I could also picture myself starting a nonprofit organization geared toward helping at-risk youth and young adults, especially helping them with writing entrance essays and scholarship letters for college."

Inspiring Words

She offers up some sound advice to aspiring Saint Leo students.

"I would say that there is value in not giving up. Oftentimes, life will offer storms that will rock you to the absolute core. But I've learned that trouble does not always last. There is a season for every journey. With hard work, dedication, perseverance and commitment, anything is possible."

With over 60 first and second generations of cousins in her family, Jackson is extremely proud to say that she will be the first African-American woman in her family to earn an MBA.

"I recognize that I am now setting the standard for the younger generations of family members who are watching me. There is an unspoken responsibility that I must uphold. At this point in my life, I am realizing that with hard work and perseverance, dreams really do come true."

Photo credit:The photograph included with this blog article was provided by Latifa Jackson and is used with permission.