Next-Gen Generosity

When 75-year-old Susan Clayton looked into the Zoom screen and met the first beneficiary of a new scholarship in her name, she recognized a certain look, a look she carried decades ago.

Jennifer James and family.

And the more they learned of each other in the talk, the more the student, 35-year-old Jennifer James, seemed straight out of Clayton’s own past. James is divorced and raising three kids, just as Clayton had been decades earlier.

“I could see in her eyes what I had been feeling,” Clayton said after their meeting, which was arranged so she could see her scholarship’s first recipient face-to-face.

James is the first to receive a scholarship from the endowment established by Clayton, now retired after a career of teaching special education in Colorado. She enrolled at Minnesota State Mankato in the mid-1960s, in her final year receiving a scholarship.

The pride she felt as a result remained throughout her long and rewarding career in special education – from teaching a full classroom of special needs kids to one-on-one teaching in later years. Upon retirement, she felt obligated to give back to the University by providing funds to those studying special education.

James was living in Lakeville when she and her husband split in 2014. She had been working retail till 10 p.m. and tried to continue over the next two years, but it was incompatible with kids. (“There’s no childcare that goes until 10’clock at night,” she said.)

She became a tutor in Reading Corps, a literacy program of Americorps that gave her a view of special education in action as well as experience with kids who needed extra help.

“That changed my life, and  is why I am where I am.” The program didn’t pay much, but it covered childcare. Her work there led to interest and studies in special education, which she started wiuth University partner Normandale Community College.

In Spring of 2020, she received word that she was the recipient of Clayton’s scholarship.

That news meant fewer worries over basic needs.

“I knew I could concentrate on school, concentrate on my education and concentrate on my relationship with my kids as well.”

She graduated in December, met Clayton online in early January and a week later was offered a job with Prior Lakes middle schools.

She hopes her journey can result in giving back the same way as Clayton, perhaps to another struggling mom wanting an education and a career.

“I want to do that,” James said. “I want to know how to do that so I can get to that point and plan that and help single moms get back to school and not having to worry about the basic needs for yourself and your kids. When you’re in that space, it’s not fun. … You’re in survival mode…I’m not in that survival space anymore.”

The meeting was an emotional one, and remains a profound moment for both.

“It was so cool to see somebody who’s gone through it before,” James said. “And to see—oh, I might cry—to see where she’s at. It seems like she’s doing great, she talks about living in Colorado and loves it. She has so much experience and has touched so many lives. That’s what I hope to be.”

“It was an amazing amount of symmetry there,” Clayton said. “I told her how proud I am of her, because she needs to know this is the start of it. I was very proud of her.”