Grad Stories 2019: Kayzia Teal


Kayzia Teal — An Ambrosian Story

Kayzia Teal's tenacity and fortitude fill pages of Janesville: An American Story, the award-winning account of a Wisconsin community whiplashed by the closing of a General Motors assembly plant two days before Christmas 2008.

When the middle-class economic security they'd always known disappeared with their father's job, Kayzia and her twin sister, Alyssa, became amazing examples of indomitable persistence in overcoming dire challenges.

To aid the family budget, Kayzia took on a pair of part-time jobs and Alyssa worked one while continuing their college prep courses at Parker High in Janesville. They took their mother grocery shopping with their paychecks while their proud father slept. Together, they earned enough money, one part-time paycheck at a time, to keep their household off of food stamp assistance. Kayzia made her way through college at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with minimal need-based financial aid, working three jobs to pay her way.

Exhaustively researched by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Amy Goldstein and published nine years after the devastating plant closing, Janesville: An American Story has been named Book of the Year by the Financial Times and McKinsey Business, made a list of recommended reads of former President Barack Obama, and earned five-star reviews from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

Kayzia cannot tell you if it's a good read, however. She hasn't read it because she has been too busy living a new chapter.

Call that Kayzia Teal: An Ambrosian Story.

On Saturday, May 11 - with her parents, her twin, her husband, Adam, and their sons Ezra and Elias (19 months and nine weeks old, respectively) looking on - Kayzia will collect her St. Ambrose Master of Social Work degree.

It will be the culmination of more than two years of twice-weekly, three-hour one-way drives from Janesville to Davenport, followed by a year of making that same trek once per week. For many of those miles, she was pregnant with her boys.

Add the countless hours of study and hybrid online coursework, plus a practicum at a Wisconsin county agency located an hour-and-a-half from Janesville, and you have a story that augments Kayzia's resume of dogged determination.

Still, Kayzia - whose name has biblical roots within the Book of Job - doesn't see her American story as particularly different than those of 25 fellow Ambrosians who also will collect their MSW degrees at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Illinois, on Saturday.

Kayzia Teal with MSW Chair Katie Van Blair

Many of those classmates made use of the part-time, hybrid option that allowed Kayzia to complete her degree in the midst of a busy life of parenting, working and providing.

"No one's situation is the same," she said. "I always tell people my experiences made me grow up a lot faster, but I don't think they necessarily shaped who I am."

Indeed, Kayzia would have been driven and unstoppable even had trucks and SUVs kept rolling off the assembly line in Janesville. The uncommon strength she displayed as a teen didn't simply emerge in the face of a family crisis.

What she gained from that buckle-up-and-grow-up challenge, however, was a deeper understanding of communal need and the power of compassion. Those things helped her recognize that social work was her calling and, beyond that, that the empowerment model of social work practice taught at St. Ambrose was a perfect fit.

"I volunteered at a nursing home my grandma worked at from the time I was little," Kayzia said. "So, I have always had a passion to help people. But my experiences have allowed me to use what I've learned to empathize and really connect with people."

That's experiences. Plural. Kayzia also knows the challenges post 9/11 military veterans and their families endure, having watched the slightly older boyfriend she came to know through a grade-school production of Fiddler on the Roof deploy to Afghanistan while she was finishing high school (Adam returned with a marriage proposal.)

It's why her capstone MSW research project this past semester looked at military spouses and the stigmas they encounter. More importantly, it's why she was able to relate to a suicidal veteran during a counseling practicum experience and calmly direct him to the help he needed through the VA.

"As we were discharging him, he said ‘I want to tell you to keep doing what you're doing because we need more people like you,"' Kayzia recalled.

Talk about empowerment.

"Seeing the different things people here are doing in their communities, I really learned that policy and advocacy are important. I feel St. Ambrose has given me that voice to say ‘I can do this. I can stand up for what I believe in.”’

Kayzia Teal '19 MSW

Through St. Ambrose, Kayzia said she has learned how to better make a difference. "So many good things come out of this program," she said.

"Seeing the different things people here are doing in their communities, I really learned that policy and advocacy are important. I feel St. Ambrose has given me that voice to say ‘I can do this. I can stand up for what I believe in."'

Anyone who has read Janesville: An American Story knows that. And while she's not yet emotionally in a place to read about those lost years of childhood, Kayzia was granted a glimpse into what the book revealed through the eyes of a grandmother who did read it.

"She said she never understood everything my sister and I did until she read about it," she said. "I thought about that a lot after she said it. I talked to my sister about it."

What Kayzia realized is that groceries and creature comfort matter more now than she might like. But then she thought of the veteran she assisted and remembered what matters most.

"That guy has really stuck with me," she said. "I am making a difference."

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