Every year, Dr. Jimmy Roux gives out awards — think senior superlatives — to the students who go with him to New Orleans for his annual spring break service-learning trip. They range from the more serious “NOLA Spirit Award” and “Service MVP” to the tongue-in-cheek “T-Mobile Customer of the Year” for a student who spent a lot of time texting.
This year, in the more serious vein, Seymoné Simmons ’23 was awarded the “Baroness Pontalba Perseverance Award.” It was named for a New Orleans Creole woman of the 1800s who survived a disastrous marriage, including being shot four times by her father-in-law, to become a businesswoman, architect, real estate developer, and all-around woman to be reckoned with.
Simmons will graduate on Thursday, May 18, with bachelor’s degrees in criminology and music and a minor in criminal forensics. It’s an achievement that might never have happened had she not been determined, like Pontalba, to persevere and thrive despite the many challenges and obstacles thrown her way.
Simmons grew up in Lynchburg’s Diamond Hill and Fort Hill neighborhoods. As she describes it, it was tough going. Her family struggled with poverty, abuse, and instability, and she also was bullied throughout most of her school years.
Despite all this, Simmons dreamed of going to college since she was 8 years old. She wanted to major in chemistry and be a scientist. As a junior at E.C. Glass High School, however, she got some news that could have dashed those dreams to smithereens: She was pregnant.
“Finding out I was going to be a teen mom was the most terrifying thing ever, honestly,” Simmons said recently, adding that she felt angry and “deceived in many ways,” but also determined to do what was best for her and her child.
She considered her options, ultimately deciding to continue her pregnancy and raise her son, Kendrick, now 4. She also kept pursuing her high school diploma — but, like everything else, it wasn’t easy.
“Senior year … became difficult for me because I had to figure out babysitting arrangements [and] how to find another job, go to school and continue my education with extracurriculars, and be a mommy,” she said.
She went to school for half days and when she got home, did homework and spent time with her son. A member of her high school’s marching band, she went to practices with her son “on chest, ready to go.”
When graduation rolled around, she accepted an advanced diploma, with honors, “with my family and son rooting for me as I walked the stage.”
Of the three colleges Simmons was accepted to, she chose the University of Lynchburg. But like high school, she faced many challenges beyond the classroom. She worked multiple jobs — six as a first-year student alone — to pay for daycare and help her mom with the bills.
She also helped her younger brother with his schoolwork and endured two “major heartbreaks” along the way.
“I struggled most of my college years, but it never stopped me,” she said. “I just remember long, sleepless nights and just looking at my son because I knew I was doing it for him — for us — to get ahead of the game.”
Even with all she has on her plate, Simmons has managed a dizzying array of extracurricular, professional, and volunteer activities over her four years at Lynchburg.
She’s a member of the professional music fraternity, Mu Phi Epsilon; the Latino fraternity, Alpha Psi Lambda; and Sigma Alpha Phi, also known as The National Society of Leadership and Success. She has served as the publicity chair for Lynchburg’s NSLS chapter and public relations officer for Lynchburg’s chapter of the Collegiate Virginia Music Educators Association.
She plays clarinet with the University’s Wind Symphony and Orchestra and recently performed her senior recital. She also plays with Lynchburg’s Clarinet Choir, Steel Drum Ensemble, and Pep Band.
“I have always known Seymoné to be self-aware and hardworking,” said Dr. Kara Eaton Dean, associate professor of music. “She has terrific commitment and grit, and I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing her progress as a musician over the past several years.
“She gives her time and energy to important, life-changing endeavors that enrich and energize her own life and those around her. Seymoné is an amazing woman and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to work with her.”
Daniel Murphy, Simmons’ criminology advisor, also is a fan.
“She was a great student and could be a role model when discussing being open-minded,” the assistant professor of criminology said. “So many people are just so opinionated and she was always willing to see things from all sides. A pleasure to have in class!”
For her criminology major, Simmons is doing a 120-hour internship at the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority’s Lynchburg Adult Detention Center, an experience she describes as “eye-opening.” She works at the jail three or four days a week and has unfortunately run into some familiar faces.
“I think that’s the hardest part about being here is [seeing] people do so many things that aren’t smart and throw their life away to be in a cell or, for some, to just have a bed, shower, and three meals a day,” she said.
“It does break my heart to see it, but I also remember being on the other side of the tracks [like] them and [I’m] grateful that I was able to go the right route in life.”
At Lynchburg, Simmons also is a Bonner Leader. Through the program, which provides a stipend and scholarship, she has completed more than 1,200 volunteer hours over the past four years. Much of this was with Lynchburg Parks and Recreation, where she is the Miller Park Neighborhood Center’s outreach assistant. She also works part-time for parks and rec’s athletics and aquatics divisions.
“I’ve learned many ways of communication since being with parks and rec,” Simmons said. “While working here, my life has been impacted in great ways, by gaining employment with the athletics and aquatics staff, gaining a sense of community and family, learning how to deal with difficult situations, and understanding change, even when it’s difficult.
“These things have all contributed to my life choices and career path in some ways, due to the many connections I’ve made and built over the years.”
When things are difficult, Simmons says family, faith, music, and positive self-talk keep her going. “In order to love who you are, you cannot hate the experiences that shaped you,” she said, quoting indigenous life coach Andrea Dykstra.
She reminds herself to “get comfortable with the uncomfortable” and tells herself, “You are too far to give up now. That little boy needs you. You got this.”
Lynchburg’s Bonner Leader Program coordinator, Tasha Gillum, said she admires Simmons’ “determination and grit,” and added that she “does not give up when things get tough or less than ideal. She shows up to see through what she starts, and she works to make it better for those who will follow in her footsteps.
“She’s encouraging, real, and holds hope and positivity. She’s been an inspirational teacher and role model for Bonner Leaders and the Lynchburg community.”
After graduation, Simmons plans to become a correctional officer — a career path she says she “fell in love with” during her internship. She also wants to create a music therapy/recreation program for the local adult and juvenile detention centers and earn master’s degrees in music therapy, nonprofit leadership, and criminal law/forensics, as well as a PhD.
“I would like to be successful in life and [I] do not mean with all the cash money in the world,” she said. “I mean, be successful, as in being able to still get by, but in better circumstances.”
She added that while her family “struggled mentally, physically, emotionally, [and] financially … our faith kept us going. It kept me going through all the abuse that carried on until my college years. It’s still difficult to see how far I have really come, as well as my family, through my 22 years on Earth.
“Now, I’m about … to graduate with a diploma and two degrees, a dream job [and] career. I’m raising my son through school, [I’ve] met the love of my life, and I continue to overcome my trials and tribulations, even the past with all its triggers — all by the grace of God.”