Choosing to be Present: Ashley Akerson
I met her at the coffee shop on campus. It was pretty dark in there, but I could hear her voice. She was engaged in playful banter with a student and totally in her element. We exchanged greetings but I could tell that she was a bit apprehensive about telling her story. After all, we did not know each other all that well. We had that kind of relationship that develops out of proximity to one another. Sure, we had countless mutual friends, but we did not actually KNOW each other. She didn’t know if I was safe or if I could be trusted. But she agreed to meet and share her narrative with me despite all that. And if I’ve learned anything about this woman, it’s that she does hard things in the face of fear for the sake of doing the right thing. The best thing.
I first met her on a Sunday morning. I noticed her smile immediately because it’s the type that sticks with you. I found myself smiling in her general direction and made my way across the crowded room to introduce myself. We talked very briefly, but in that moment, I learned things about her. She was warm and welcomed my awkward attempt at making a new friend. She carried herself in a way that drew me in. Her laugh overshadowed the inevitable tension present when entering into a conversation with a random stranger. And every article of clothing on her body was just... cool. I found her interesting and found myself thinking about our short conversation throughout the week. But still, I knew very little about her. So, I sought out to know her. And I’ll admit, as extroverted as I am, I often find myself in this weird dichotomy, caught between severe FOMO and hoping all the plans get cancelled. I sometimes have to take inventory of myself- am I reaching out enough? Am I letting people in? Is my perspective right? None of those thoughts crossed my mind when I thought about her. It just seemed very natural. Easy, even.
Ashley Akerson, one of the most gentle souls you’ll meet, sat with me on a Monday morning and let me into her life. I was already kind of casually wedging my way in, but she really let me see. She and her younger brother were raised near Atlanta by her mother. She spoke of her mother with a tenderness that every mother dreams her daughter would, and the fondness was not just in what was spoken, but in her cadence and expressions. Ashley loves her family and it is clear that they were and are foundational in shaping her. They even call themselves the “Three Musketeers”, which is just maybe the sweetest of all the things. For most of her early years, Ashley attended schools in Fulton County, which consisted primarily of lower income families and was fairly homogeneous, and found herself struggling to find opportunities to grow. As high school approached, she knew she needed to be in a position to walk through every open door she encountered. She told her mother that she wanted to attend McIntosh High School, but this school was completely out of her neighborhood and much different than the community she was accustomed to. Her saint of a mother PICKED UP AND MOVED to meet the needs of her child. This decision proved to be huge for Ashley. She leaned into her new school with ferocity, joining every club and team that she possibly could. She even volunteered to open up the library in the mornings, reshelving books and lending aid in any way she could. When I asked her why she thought she put so much effort into doing so much, she grinned and told me that’s just how she is. Personally, I think it’s because Ashley is a doer. A helper who can’t not be doing good work.
In her senior year of high school, Ashley started thinking about her next step, and college was it. She had been exposed to Union University through her pastor’s daughter but had never actually seen the campus herself. She planned to apply to Georgia Tech with the intention of studying Architecture but also decided to travel to Jackson, Tennessee to visit Union. She made the trip from Peachtree City to Jackson in October, in the height of changing leaves and crisp autumn air. She remembered being so enamored by how beautiful the drive was only to actually get to Union and fall in love with the campus (and the dorms). Once she visited Union, she was done. Her decision was made and she did not even apply anywhere else! She cruised through her freshman year at Union as an Art and Missions major (but very quickly realized that you can do good work without majoring in how to do it) and secured a job at Winshape camps for the summer. As the summer drew to an end, however, she realized that going back to Union and continuing her education would put an immense financial burden on her that she simply could not incur. She made the decision to go home and work for a year. Ashley told me that the year she spent at home, working at Chick-Fil-A and hustlin’ to make it work, was hard. But good and full of growth and in one year, she found a way back to Union.
Ashley graduated from Union in 2016 and moved to Nashville where she took a job as an elementary art teacher at an inner-city magnet school. The work was fulfilling and she enjoyed her students, but the demands teaching puts on a person can be overwhelming. Especially on a woman who was teaching full time and working on her Masters. She found herself longing to be in a space where she could create. Where she did not have to do early mornings and dress professionally every single weekday. She was longing for freedom but did not know how to find it. So, in her own words, she “threw up prayers”, not knowing exactly what she wanted or needed, but knowing that she longed for something. While in Nashville in the middle of a work day, she received a text from a friend in Jackson, letting her know that the job of Residence Director was open at Union. Which was great. For someone else. She just knew that she was not supposed to leave Nashville. That she was supposed to be teaching art. After all, she had just earned a Master’s degree and was living the life that she thought was right, teaching art in Nashville. But she could not shake the feeling that maybe this job, in Jackson, was the answer to her prayer for more (or less). So, through a series of being presented with the job opportunity multiple times, she ultimately made the decision to go. She started as the Residence Director at Union in August of 2018, a job which affords her the opportunity to oversee 400 freshmen. There are definitely official duties, such as handling inter-student conflict and discipline issues, but the role I would be willing to bet she’s the best at is building relationships with students.
Unfortunately, being the right person to fill a role and having the credentials and skills to be good at a job does not make that job easy. The nature of her position sometimes requires her to deal with heavy issues- mental illness, relational tension, the weight of familial brokenness. Ashley expressed that often, after the issues had been handled, she would feel the loneliness of walking through these circumstances without an outlet. Because students can be friends but there are definite boundaries. Being a single woman, she has walked through darkness alone. That, coupled with the strangely complex navigation of Jackson’s racial tensions, made for a very hard first year back in our Hub City. Ashley described her overall feeling that first year as “glad to be here but ready to go”. I, for one, am so very thankful that she pressed in when she could have opted out, because we need her here. She is a woman who enters into relational opportunities despite the unknown and is perfectly fine to “sit in the awkward”. We need those first step-takers, and Ashley is certainly one of those.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I had just one more question for her. I asked her how she has been able to find community, to ride out the storm of loneliness and find ways to meaningfully connect to others in our city. As a Jackson native, it is deceptively easy for me to forget that not everyone has a core group of people here that helps them feel grounded when life feels anything but. And her answer has been rolling around in my brain and pushing me to think of ways to connect deeper with my neighbors. She did not have an eloquent answer or a list of instructions. She told me she has been present and intentional. That’s it. She has found out what interests the people around her and she has championed those things. She has made the effort to learn about and be engaged in what others put value in, and she has SHOWN UP. She has put herself out there, knowing full well that the response may be disappointing. She is learning to trust and open up, and sisters (and maybe brothers?), that is hard work. Vulnerability for the sake of real relationships can simultaneously feel exhilarating and rewarding and exhausting and terrifying. But Ashley is here, really here, for it.
I sat in that coffee shop, across from Ashley, so I could retell her story in hopes that it would make one of you feel seen or encourage you to put your own self out there, but friends, I was the one who needed Ashley’s story. The story of a woman who has and continues to work to be her best self. Who was shaped and grounded by her past but is pushing for the best present for her community. Who is intentional and kind and present. Who CHOSE to come back to Jackson and put down roots here. Who is digging her hands into the hard realities here and does not shy away from showing up. Who knows that you have to sacrifice your own comfort to gain the reward of community. That is the kind of woman I want in my corner, whose corner I want to be in, and who I want to walk alongside as we are making our homes and neighborhoods and city a place for everyone.