Southern alumna Jahana Hayes, ’05, became the first Southern graduate to be elected to national office on November 6, 2018, when she won an election to the U.S. House of Representatives for Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District. The historic nature of Hayes’ win extends beyond Southern, as she is the first African American woman to be elected to represent Connecticut in Congress.
A former history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn., Hayes first received national attention in 2016 when she was selected as National Teacher of the Year. After receiving that honor, she embarked on a yearlong campaign representing teachers and advocating on behalf of students, and sharing her inspirational life story in forums ranging from “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to U.S. News and World Report.
That story begins in Waterbury, where Hayes was raised and ultimately would return to teach. “Like every teacher, I started as a student and like many students I know what it feels like to have a dream and exist in an environment where nothing is expected to thrive,” she has said, describing her early life in the projects “surrounded by abject poverty, drugs, and violence.”
Education provided an alternative future. Hayes remembers caring teachers who lent her books, provided guidance, and shared stories of their own college experiences. As a teenager, Hayes became pregnant and was transferred to an alternative education program. It would be years after graduating from high school before she enrolled at Naugatuck Community College, initially telling no one out of a fear of failure. But the determined young woman was successful, and after earning an associate degree, she transferred to Southern where she graduated magna cum laude.
Hayes launched her career in New Haven, then returned to Waterbury, where in addition to teaching history, she was the chairperson of the School of Academic Renown program for gifted students at Kennedy High. The community-minded educator also served as co-advisor of the Helping out People Everywhere (HOPE) club, and considers “giving back” to be a vital component of the educational experience.