Alumna Jessica Shaw-Koehler’s Brookdale Community College journey stems back to over a decade before her tragic passing in 2019.
“It was a close school and it had a good reputation. When my older daughter Jessica went, she just absolutely loved it, it was just such a welcoming community,” said Shaw-Koehler’s mother, Isabel Shaw. “Everybody she met really guided her and helped her and was so supportive. She went on to several other schools, but Brookdale was still the most memorable for her.”
Throughout her two years at the college, Shaw-Koehler actively participated in a variety of campus activities and organizations. As a psychology major, she attended conferences with Professor Joel Morgovsky and was involved in the psychology club on campus, where she became passionate about the subject. She was an enhanced member of Phi Theta Kappa and Vice President of Brookdale’s chapter of Psi Beta, an honor society that recognizes students who are dedicated to the field of psychology and to scholastic achievement. She also excelled in French and participated in a semester abroad in Paris during her time at Brookdale, before graduating from college in 2008.
According to Shaw-Koehler’s mother, their experiences at Brookdale gave both Jessica and her younger sister Amanda, who graduated in 2013, the confidence to pursue further education.
“I think it was a springboard that was such a supportive and wonderful environment,” Shaw said. “It gave them the confidence when Jessica went to Kean and when Amanda went to Rutgers. They really had such fondness for the whole introduction to the college environment at Brookdale.”
After graduating summa cum laude from Kean University in 2010, Shaw-Koehler went on to work at Verizon for a few years before entering the Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Medical Program at Rutgers to continue her education. There, she joined the Triathlon Team and competed in Ironman races. Before applying to medical school, Shaw-Koehler took a gap year upon her completion of the pre-med program, which she spent rescuing injured and stranded hikers and skiers on the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Shaw said her daughter’s experiences working in Search and Rescue reaffirmed her desire to pursue a career in medicine.
“She goes to the top of the mountains to rescue these people and does all this stuff but she couldn’t treat them, so this really reinforced that she wanted to be able to help more people, and [becoming a doctor] would enable her to be able to do that.”
After earning admission to five medical schools, struck by the beauty of the surrounding area, Shaw-Koehler ultimately decided on Rocky Vista University in Utah. During her time there, she became fascinated with natural healing methods. As an aspiring doctor, she sought to find alternatives for certain medications after coming across osteopathic physicians. She hoped that her future practice would take a holistic approach to achieve health in her patients.
According to Shaw, Brookdale provided a platform for each of her daughters and equipped Jessica with the tools needed to succeed in medical school.
“We are a blue-collar family. I didn’t graduate, my husband didn’t graduate. She was quite a first-gen student. So, we didn’t really know how to navigate this,” Shaw said. “Brookdale gave them so many opportunities and helped them so much, that it was just a great springboard and a platform to continue on.”
While entering her second year of medical school in 2019, at 30 years old, Shaw-Koehler died from the impact of her vehicle colliding with a horse on a major interstate road in Utah.
“It was a horrible shock for someone who was in the prime of their life,” her mother said. “We were shattered for months.”
Jessica’s family distributed her ashes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to pay tribute to her and return her to the place she loved most. Each year, a “Jess Fest” is held to reminisce on her life through sharing stories and photographs.
Motivated by her daughter’s experiences at the college and encouragement to further her education, Shaw started taking classes at Brookdale during the pandemic in Jessica’s honor.
“I thought I’ll do this for her. I’ll go back and I’ll see what I can do. I’ll try because she had such a good experience and my experience has been exactly the same,” Shaw said. “The people are just so helpful and calling me back and encouraging me. I’m getting the same wonderful feedback that both of my girls got.”
Jessica’s deep appreciation for the outdoors inspired Shaw to participate in the building of a butterfly sanctuary and herb garden on Brookdale’s campus.
Shaw said part of her daughter’s legacy has been inspiring others to achieve their goals and live by her motto, “never give up.”
“One of her friends just wrote and said, ‘I feel her with me every day, I’m honored to have known her and I think what Jessie would have done here.’ So I think she’s inspired a lot of people to not give up and go for your dreams,” Shaw said.