Nicole Jackson: From First-Generation Student to College Professor

by Kay Carney | March 22, 2021

When Nicole Jackson ’05, PhD, arrived at Saint Mary’s College as a first-year student, she wept. The first in her family to attend college, Jackson was nervous but also surprisingly excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. “I’m originally from East Oakland, and I came to Saint Mary’s pretty much on a whim,” said Jackson. “I didn’t plan to go to college, but a high school teacher told me that Saint Mary’s was doing a lot of diversity recruitment, so I decided to apply. When I was accepted, I never imagined that my life was on course to change forever.”

Jackson, an associate professor of History at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, vividly recalls her first few weeks at Saint Mary’s, and that there were very few people who looked like her. “There were students from all over California and across the country, and that felt very disorienting. Moraga felt like a really small town, Black students were almost nonexistent, and I felt totally out of my depth,” said Jackson. “But then I found the Women’s Resource Center, and that became my centering place—my home away from home where I could simply be me.”

Jackson changed her major several times as she tried to find her calling. “I took an African American History class that I loved, and that sealed the deal for me to major in History,” she shared. “The college experience for me became more secure as a result of some great professors who recognized my talent, and challenged me to step beyond my fears so I could soar.” Jackson added that having professors who established community within the classroom so students could feel safe, is what helped to shape her as a student scholar, a graduate student, and a tenured professor. “The kind of community building that can and should take place in the classroom, especially for students of color is essential to their retention and success. This is what I do with my students at Bowling Green, and I learned this from the personal experience I had as a student of color at Saint Mary’s.”

History Professor Myrna Santiago, is one of the many faculty members at Saint Mary’s that had an indelible impact on Jackson. “I recall running into Myrna just before graduation, and she asked me what I was doing after Saint Mary’s. I told her that I had no plans, and she suggested that I’d do well in graduate school. I trusted Myrna, and thought if she thinks I can do this, then I’m going to do this,” said Jackson. She immediately applied and was accepted to The Ohio State University where she earned an MA and PhD in History.

Jackson has soared—from a first-generation college student at Saint Mary’s, to a highly accomplished and tenured university professor. She is a respected historian of the modern African Diaspora, Black social movements, and community activism with a focus on contemporary Black Britain. Her work has appeared in Callaloo, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal; Blackness in Britain, and Adjusting the Contrast: British Television and Constructs of Race. Jackson is also a regular contributor to Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.