Night School Classmates Found Encouragement, Confidence and Friendship

Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, President, Palm Beach Atlantic University

The next time something unpleasant pops up to interrupt your plans, take heart from Jessica Clasby. She’s come to believe “God has reasons for His timing.”

About 10 years ago, while running a membership program for the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, Jessica learned about Palm Beach Atlantic University’s evening classes for non-traditional students. As she heard PBA’s Dr. Jim Laub describe the Christian atmosphere and the leadership program, “something inside me just totally changed,” she recalled.

Prior to that time, she’d been content with the associate’s degree she earned at a community college. But after hearing Laub’s remarks, she hurried up to him and said, “I need to learn more about this school.” The following week, she registered for classes, eager to study for her bachelor’s degree.

Then came the interruption. She got seriously ill, and was out of commission for seven weeks. “But I still had this fire in me that I needed to come to PBA,” she said. So after her recovery, she signed up again, and began her classes in August 2011.

Looking back on it now, Jessica concludes, “There was a reason for me to be in class that August.” God was about to place professors and classmates in her path for a purpose.

Her instructors challenged and encouraged her. Soon she had duel-enrolled to head for her master’s on top of her bachelor’s. “Everything just kind of shaped my life and changed from that point,” she said.


Jessica Clasby

Stepping out of her shell and reaching higher

It was hard, holding down a full-time job and going to evening classes, but Jessica realized she was growing. “It gave me the confidence to step out of my shell and reach higher.” Even before she earned that master’s degree, she upped her game professionally, landing a leadership position.

Meanwhile, Jessica was reaching out as well as reaching up. Once, as she was just getting to know the students in a new class, she listened as classmate Maricela Torres opened up about her feelings and world view. She’d been wrestling with questions like “Who am I? What does my life mean? What is the purpose of my life?”

New classmates, new friends

PBA, of course, is a Christian university, but Maricela told the class she was “still really searching” for the spiritual side of her life.

Immediately, Jessica spoke up. Putting a hand on Maricela’s shoulder, she told her, “You belong here. You’re going to find what you’re looking for.”

“I had no idea who this woman was,” recalled Maricela. But she took heart at this gesture of compassion and respect. After class the two talked for a long time, and they wound up becoming close friends.

“Jessica is not one of those quiet friends,” Maricela said. “She’s a cheerleader who shows up for her friends and the causes she believes in. She always likes to encourage and empower others in their dreams. It may not be her dream, but she is sitting right there, courtside, cheering you on. That makes her special.”


Maricela Torres

On to master’s degrees and new missions

As Jessica predicted, Maricela grew in her faith. And both women earned their master’s degrees, Jessica’s in leadership, and Maricela’s in counseling. Maricela went on to become co-founder and executive director of the Esperanza Community Center, a nonprofit organization serving the Northwood community of West Palm Beach. The center’s mission is “to empower day laborers and families in the Northwood community to thrive.”

“Maricela is pretty amazing,” said Jessica. The feeling is mutual. Recently these two PBA grads enjoyed lunch together, “and then in the parking lot we were still hanging on for 20 minutes,” said Maricela. “There’s so much to talk about. I’m so proud of Jessica and everything she has accomplished.”

I had the privilege of meeting Jessica last year at the grand opening of Palm Beach Atlantic’s new, eight-story student residence Watson Family Hall. These days she’s using her gifts as encourager and “cheerleader” in both her job and her volunteer service. She is senior director of public relations for the Florida Sugar Cane League, describing herself as a storyteller on the importance of agriculture.

Jessica also has become president of the Palm Beach Atlantic University Alumni Association. Director of Alumni Relations Steve Eshelman said she’s brought an incredible level of energy, experience and enthusiasm to the task. “Jessica’s love for our Christ-first University and fellow alumni community is evident in everything she does,” he said.

I’m struck by that word community. I think about these two PBA alumna who came together in learning, friendship, encouragement and service. Thank you, Jessica and Maricela, for that example of true community in the fellowship of Christ.


Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. ( more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit

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