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Degree means new life for local woman

Gladys Jackson works recently in a new house as part of Mitchell Technical Institute's HVAC program. Jackson is one of 434 students who will graduate today from MTI. (Jordan Steffen/Daily Republic)

Gladys Jackson thanks a balky air conditioner and the help of a lot of people for the diploma she will accept at 5 p.m. Friday at the Mitchell Corn Palace.

Jackson, 33, of Mitchell, will be one of 434 graduates at Mitchell Technical Institute's commencement exercises.

After two years of hard work, Jackson will leave the stage clutching an associate of applied science degree in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technology. She has a job waiting at Paulson Air, an HVAC contractor in Mitchell.

Jackson is one of only two women who have graduated from the HVAC program, according to instructor Jason Juhnke.

"She's been a wonderful student," he said. "She enjoys working and she's always willing to learn."

Jackson previously worked as a certified nursing assistant in several states but wanted a better life with better pay.

"It's something that's always needed," Jackson said of her HVAC trade. "I know that if I have these skills, I'll always have a profession."

Jackson was reminded of HVAC's importance when she couldn't get the air conditioner in her trailer working during a summer heat wave. She couldn't afford to have someone fix the machine and had no repair experience.

It was then and there that Jackson decided to learn how to fix it herself.

The air conditioner still isn't fixed, she said with a laugh, but she figures she will soon have time and skills to take care of that.

A member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, Jackson grew up in Lake Andes. As valedictorian of the Class of 1997 at Marty Indian School, she was headed to the University of South Dakota on a full-ride nursing scholarship when she became pregnant and her life took a turn into an abusive relationship.

"I was young and stupid and I thought I could change him," she said.

Three children and two unfulfilling relationships later, Jackson found herself minus her kids and facing drug charges. It's her hope that a new career will allow her to pull her family together and begin a new life.

With a 15-year-old daughter and two sons aged 9 and 10, Jackson knows her time to be a real mother is fading.

"My daughter said 'I'm proud of you, Mom,' and I told her, 'I've been waiting so long to hear those words from you.' "

"I fell down," she added. "It's part of learning from your mistakes. It's something that happened, but it's not going to happen again."

Jackson still has the remains of her legal mess to clean up, but she's convinced all that will soon be behind her.

With her day classes at MTI, her internship at Paulson and evenings dedicated to the late shift at a McDonald's restaurant, Jackson said her days are long but satisfying.

She said the list of those who helped her is equally long.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe paid for half of Jackson's tuition and gave her a monthly stipend to help cover expenses. Paulson Air provided her the internship slot she needed to earn valuable on-the-job experience during her final semester at MTI, and she credits McDonald's shift manager Jess Prickett for customizing her schedule to meet her school and internship needs.

"In my sociology class I learned that most people go through at least five careers in their lifetimes," she said. "I think I'm on my last one, and this one's going to stick. I went through a lot to get this degree."

Half of the classmates she began with fell away, Jackson said, but she didn't quit.

"In hung in there," she said. "I surprised myself."