Forest Hill student loses home in fire, gets two degrees and big surprise at graduation

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NSU President Dr. Chris Maggio presented graduate Jessica Thompson with a donation from the NSU Foundation during commencement exercises Dec. 18. Earlier in the week, Thompson’s family of seven lost everything in a house fire and have battled other challenges this year. Thompson earned two degrees, a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a biomedical concentration and a minor in chemistry along with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, and plans to attend medical school.

NATCHITOCHES – The Northwestern State University Demon family came together to help one of its own this week as faculty and friends rallied to the assistance of Jessica Thompson, a student from Forest Hill who was set to graduate Friday, Dec. 18.

On Monday, Dec. 14, Thompson returned home from taking a final exam to find her house in flames.  No one, including Thompson’s husband and five children, were home at the time and all are safe, but the home was a total loss – Christmas gifts, irreplaceable family pictures, everything. Her family’s previous home was lost in a fire four years ago.

Thompson earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a biomedical concentration and a minor in chemistry along with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Despite the week’s tragedy, she moved forward with her plans to participate in both the 1 p.m. ceremony for graduates in the College of Arts and Sciences and the 4 p.m. ceremony for graduates in the College of Education and Human Development.

This week’s fire trails a long string of challenges for Thompson’s family. Last year her son was diagnosed with ideopathic gastroparesis and relies totally on a GJ feeding tube for nutrition. This year, he had three surgeries and around 15 hospital admissions, which slowed after the feeding tube was placed in February. Her daughter went into liver failure earlier this semester and was flown to New Orleans Children’s Hospital. She is now doing much better and in stable condition, Thompson said.

Thompson works nights in the neonatal intensive care unit at Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria as a unit secretary and lactation counselor. Through COVID-19, she has worked in other units as well.

“This woman is truly an inspiration,” said Dr. Christopher Lyles, interim director of the School of Biological and Physical Sciences.  “I think most of us would have given up, but she continued to fight and is graduating with two degrees through a pandemic. We often cite her ability to keep moving forward. She is a true inspiration for us here in Biology.”

“Her strength of character shines bright as Jessica continues to count her blessings in the face of adversity,” said Dr. Susan Thorson-Barnett, chair of the Department of Psychology.

Thompson is a first-generation college student and hopes to attend medical school.

“I wouldn’t be graduating right now if it weren’t for my professors. They have been amazingly compassionate and have allowed me to make up anything I missed,” Thompson said.

As the news of Thompson’s tragedy spread, Northwestern State faculty and friends began discussing how they could help.  The Department of Psychology put forth $500 that was matched by the NSU Foundation.  As Thompson crossed the stage during Friday’s 1 p.m. ceremony, NSU President Dr. Chris Maggio presented her with the donation and then her diploma.

“My most valuable experience is to persevere through everything,” Thompson said.  “We’ve gone through a lot as a family and I’m just glad it’s all over and I get to graduate with two degrees.”

“Her journey was certainly not easy and this gift to her and her family will be very special,” Lyles said.

Faculty also worked with the NSU Foundation to establish a continuing support fund.

Anyone who would like to contribute can do so by visiting https://www.northwesternstatealumni.com/donations/make-a-gift/ and specify through the drop-down menus that the gift is for the Jessica B. Thompson Support Fund.