Students in a community-based service learning course spend their Tuesdays learning, but not in a classroom.
Instead, about a dozen classmates travel with Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Studies Carol Lanham to South Oak Cliff High School to mentor, teach and build relationships with its students through the Dallas-based nonprofit Focus on Teens. One Tuesday morning in February, the service class arrived at South Oak Cliff to find out that student NeQuacia Jacobs had been killed.
Jacobs, an eighteen-year-old expected to graduate in May, was shot while inside her apartment. The perpetrator shot and wounded her younger sister, as well. At South Oak Cliff the following Monday, the student body wore purple in her honor.
“She was a ray of sunshine for everyone,” Sociology sophomore Karine Garduno said. “When I saw that she was lost, and she was the third student they had lost since the beginning of that year, all due to gun violence… She had a lot ahead of her. Because of how big of an influence she had on our kids we wanted to make sure that we respected them, the school, and her life, and could celebrate her life.”
Sociology junior Hannah Hofmann said although she never had a chance to meet Jacobs, hearing from Jacobs’ grandmother and close friends showed her what a brilliant and ambitious young lady she was.
“Walking into the school that morning, I could feel a heaviness from the pain of the faculty and her peers,” Hofmann said. “It was a very dark atmosphere. The sad part of it all was speaking with the students. I knew that this was not as shocking to them as it had been to me, because unfortunately this is not the first time they have seen someone they know lost to gun violence.”
The high school’s alumna and community liaison Derrick Battie started a petition for gun reform in her name — Quaci’s Law — and Lanham said the UTD students asked how they could help. That request resulted in an April 11 visit to UTD’s campus by Battie and Jacobs’ grandmother to speak on the topic in Lanham’s Classical Social Theory course.
“We were discussing the essays of W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote about disparities in education for African Americans,” Lanham said. “Mr. Battie often speaks of the challenges they have faced at South Oak Cliff. He even brought along Quaci’s grandmother as a special guest and she talked about the petition. Their lectures moved us to tears and inspired even more of our students to get involved in the drive to get signatures for the petition.”
A Student Union booth run by students in the service learning course that same day provided information about Jacobs’ life and the gun law reform petition.
In a Facebook post, Battie wrote, “We would like to sincerely thank each of the beautiful, intelligent, passionate students at the UTD Richardson campus for helping the SOC community launch the official Online petition for ‘Quaci’s Law’ in honor of Former Dallas South Oak Cliff HS senior, NeQuacia Jacobs, who was shot and killed, and her younger sister who currently attends Dallas Life Oak Cliff.”
As of April 27, 392 people had signed an online petition advocating for Quaci’s Law, and the physical copy garnered over 600 signatures.
International political economy freshman Ragya Kaul, who is also a member of the service class, said raising awareness in the community and the university is essential.
“It’s important not to become desensitized to it, like, ‘It’s just another gun death that happened,” because it’s another life that was taken,” Kaul said. “It’s very easy for us to just glaze over all the people who are shot but it’s really important than we give each one individual attention.”
According to US News, 84 percent of students at South Oak Cliff high school are economically disadvantaged. UTD students volunteer through the organization Focus on Teens to both mentor South Oak Cliff high schoolers and pick a topic of discussion for each week. Themes have included coping with stress, personality assessments and achieving goals in spite of obstacles.
Focus on Teens, a Dallas-based non-profit, operates a drop-in center designed to provide homeless and at-risk students in the Dallas and Fort Worth area with access to food, hygiene products and other basic needs. Kaul said the time spent at with the students has been a learning and growing experience for her entire class.
“It’s not only a really lovely bunch of kids, but a lot of times when people talk about homeless or at-risk kids they don’t really think of them as having potential,” Kaul said. “They don’t think of them as having the motivation to finish school. These kids have dreams and goals for success. They want to be in the Olympics, they want to own their own business, they want to be doctors and vets the same as the rest of us but they’re not given the opportunity to.”
Kaul said she sees UTD joining a community effort to seek resolution for Jacobs’ death.
“In black and brown and low-income communities, these kinds of things are just expected to happen and no one really does anything about it,” Kaul said. “They’ll just say it’s inevitable. But that’s not the case, and you see it especially when you have one-on-one interactions with these kids. That’s not the case at all.”