At just 21 years old, Jessica Senatus has already graduated from the University of South Florida’s MUMA College of Business with a whole list of honors and awards to go along with it. Steadfast in her studies, she completed in just three years what takes most people four or more.
She attributes much of her success to her parents’ determination to provide her and her siblings with a better life and building a strong community around her. Jessica was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and her family moved to the United States not long after. She wasn’t quite three years old when her parents bought their home in Naples Manor back in 2003, so her Habitat home is the only one she remembers.
“There’s not a day in my life that I had to worry about shelter,” she says. “I can’t imagine not having that stability. I know for a fact that my parents are grateful, several times a year I hear them say how thankful they are for Habitat, which shows you it’s a lasting impact.”
Living just a short walk from the Habitat Office, from a young age Jessica would accompany her parents on regular visits to pay the mortgage. Embraced by the Habitat staff, soon, the office felt like her “home away from home” and she decided that she wanted to be an office volunteer.
“She plopped in my chair one day and told me all about herself and how she was a straight A student, what she wanted to do when she grew up, and how wonderful she was,” says Habitat Collier Director of Real Estate, Rebecca Paratore. “She kept coming back over the summer, and from age eight she was very dedicated about what she wanted to do. Her mind was made up.”
Jessica recalls that her strong will certainly didn’t go unnoticed with other members of the Habitat staff. When CEO Lisa Lefkow stopped by her middle school as “Principal for a Day,” she gave Jessica a nugget of wisdom that has stuck with her ever since.
“I remember a distinct moment when she looked at me and said ‘You know Jess, you’re a leader,’ and I thought oh, sweet! Cool!” she says. “What she said afterward was really impactful. She said, ‘But it’s up to you whether you want to be a good leader or a bad leader.’ I still think about that almost every week. After that moment, I started to get very focused on my academics, my extra curriculars, and I even applied for my first scholarship.”
She attended USF with a full scholarship while working two part-time jobs, graduating summa cum laude, debt free, and having secured a job in her field right out of school. Now, she’s a Cyber Security Defense Associate at KPMG, one of the “big four” global accounting organizations.
“When you don’t have to endure what would have happened if you didn’t have something, you forget how impactful it is. So, coming to the Habitat office was a way to remember,” she says. “I truly think that a huge chunk of my success— being able to focus on school, going to college, and just so many things that I’ve been able to do… comes from having a stable home where I knew at the end of the day that Habitat had our back. I felt like I could do anything.”