Power of Determination: The Story of Jeffery McCoy

How a young man graduated against all odds and is now helping others to succeed.

Nicholas Gunn, Andrews University
Power of Determination: The Story of Jeffery McCoy
Jeffery McCoy, district social worker for Benton Harbor Area Schools in Benton Harbor, Michigan, United States, is pictured in front of Benton Harbor High School. [Photo: Nicholas Gunn]

In the face of adversity and hardship, Jeffery McCoy, a native of Benton Harbor, Michigan, United States, defied the odds by completing his master’s degree and dedicating himself to community service.

Born and raised in a challenging environment with high crime and a poverty rate of more than 44 percent, according to the United States 2020 Census, McCoy’s journey is a testament to resilience and determination.

McCoy’s early life was marked by poverty and hardship. He grew up in low-income Section 8 housing with a mother battling domestic violence and alcoholism, and who was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Recounting those difficult times, he shares, “I witnessed my mother’s boyfriend do a number of things to her that shouldn’t be done to a woman, including punching, hitting, kicking, and spitting on her. It is definitely not appropriate for kids to witness their mom going through that. Today I can say that my relationship with my mom was and still is everything to me.”

In the summer of 2009, facing a struggling school district in Benton Harbor, McCoy enrolled in Countryside Academy to begin high school, but the challenges didn’t end there. McCoy experienced significant adversity while providing for himself during his mother’s extended hospital stays. The strain took a toll on his mental health, leading to anxiety and depression.

“I started to develop bad anxiety and depression. At one point, I even was in the hospital for anxiety attacks, where they were giving me medication to manage my anxiety,” McCoy recounts.

A look at his high school transcript reveals 16 Ds and 16 Fs, an academic equation for failure. Along with his low grade point average (GPA), McCoy said he didn’t have any motivation to continue his education. “I really had no motivation to finish high school. Although I felt pressure to finish high school because I saw my peers taking senior pictures and getting ready to graduate, getting cap and gowns with their families. That part was embarrassing, but I never felt inadequate, I never thought I wasn’t smart enough. I always felt like I could do anything I wanted to do, and I had the potential to do the things I wanted to do. I just needed to apply myself,” McCoy says.

It would take summer school classes and an extra semester of high school before McCoy would reach the requirements for him to receive his high school diploma in 2015. He reveals, “I didn’t think college was for me because high school was so rough.”

Recognizing the influence of his girlfriend at the time, McCoy’s mother recruited her support to motivate McCoy toward higher education. “My mother would tell my girlfriend to encourage me to attend the local community college, Lake Michigan College, because she knew I would listen to my girlfriend,” McCoy recalls.

McCoy enrolled at Lake Michigan College (LMC), where he continued to face academic challenges. The transition from high school to college presented difficulties in and out of the classroom, but McCoy persevered. In December 2017, he achieved a significant milestone, earning an Associate of Arts degree from LMC with a GPA of 2.2.

However, life’s challenges persisted after he graduated. A series of heartbreaking events, including the loss of loved ones, strained relationships, and personal setbacks, led McCoy to a dark period of homelessness and deep depression. The loss of his grandmother, who played a significant role in his upbringing, marked the beginning of a tumultuous phase in his life. A major fallout with his mother, coupled with the repossession of his car, left McCoy in an uncertain situation.

Struggling with the weight of these adversities, McCoy found himself experiencing a form of hidden homelessness, seeking shelter on the floor of his aunt’s house. The once-promising graduate now grappled with the harsh realities of life, feeling the weight of despair. “I remember I was laying on a twin-size mattress on the floor, looking at the ceiling and thinking to myself, ‘This can’t be how life goes.’ There was a ceiling fan above me, and I was just looking at the fan and thinking like I can’t imagine myself looking at the ceiling fan for the rest of my life,” McCoy says.

Amidst the darkness, McCoy turned to prayer and sought the words of motivational speakers on YouTube. Struggling to break free from the grip of depression, he embarked on a journey of self-discovery. McCoy began applying to universities and colleges, determined to continue his education and contribute meaningfully to his community. Despite facing numerous rejections and unanswered inquiries, he refused to be discouraged.

The turning point came when he applied to Andrews University, a decision that would reshape his future. Recalling the pivotal moment, McCoy shares, “Andrews told me I needed a 2.5 GPA, so I went and retook two classes at LMC. I remember I got an A and a B after retaking those two classes. I was super excited, then I looked at my GPA. I was needing a 2.5, but I now had a 2.499. I could’ve cried tears because I had tried so hard.”

On the brink of disappointment, McCoy prevailed. Just a day after wrestling with the possibility of falling short, he received an email that changed everything — a heartfelt congratulations on his acceptance to Andrews University.

McCoy then faced more troubles as the car he would use broke down. He persevered with the unwavering support of his mother. “I praise God for my car breaking down; those 20-minute drives to Andrews with my mom got us closer together.”

Reflecting on his time at Andrews University, McCoy expresses gratitude for supportive teachers who went beyond their standard roles. “They fostered relationships with me, and they stayed in your business, in a good way. They weren’t just teachers; I could tell they genuinely cared about me being successful. I feel like I owe those teachers at Andrews the world because of how good they treated me.”

In May 2022, Jeffery McCoy earned his bachelor’s degree in social work, followed by his Master of Social Work in August 2023. Currently, he serves as a district social worker for Benton Harbor Area Schools and owns McCoy Visionary Consulting, a personal development firm.

McCoy’s journey from a struggling student to a community servant is inspiring to others facing adversity. McCoy states, “I had teachers and role models that saw the good in me growing up. They looked past my bad grades and my troubles and told me that I was a smart kid, and that I was capable of one day changing the world. I want to be the light that others were for me.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Andrews University news site.

Nicholas Gunn, Andrews University