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Creating opportunity: Professor recalls her journey from TJC student to nurse to educator

Tyler Junior College nursing professor Jennifer Wilson never had any intention of becoming a teacher.

As a student in the TJC Associate Degree Nursing program in the early 1990s, she said, “I was the student who wanted to hide in the back of the classroom, didn’t want to be called on or want any attention paid to me. I just wanted to do my notes and get out of class. I was that student.”

But one of her instructors saw a spark in her that she didn’t.

Wilson said, “I never wanted to go back to school [to get my teaching credentials], but I had a professor at TJC named Leona Adamson, who kept telling me, ‘One day, you’re going to teach.’ And I would say, ‘No, I’m not, Ms. Adamson. I just want to go to work and be a nurse.’ And she would say, ‘I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but you’re going to teach.’”

For the next 20 years, this exchange played out at various run-ins at the grocery store and around town:

Adamson: “Are you teaching yet?” 
Wilson: “No, Ms. Adamson.”
Adamson: “Someday, you will. I have faith.”

After graduating from TJC in 1992, Wilson landed her first nursing job in the medical/surgical unit at Nan Travis Memorial Hospital (now UT Health East Texas) in Jacksonville; and for the next couple of decades, she worked the East Texas nursing circuit in ICU, step-down ICU, home health, hospice, you-name-it.

The teaching bug bit — and Professor Adamson’s prophecy finally came true — when Wilson found herself leading CPR classes at Longview Regional Hospital.

She said, “The lady who ran the education department at the hospital said, ‘Jennifer, why don’t you teach? You do things that people who don’t teach aren’t supposed to know, and you do it just because it’s who you are.’”

She thought back to Prof. Adamson’s teaching style and compared it with her own.

“She had a way of teaching where she would bring her work experience into the classroom, but she wouldn’t do it in a way where she talked down to you,” she said. “She did it in a way to help you understand the material.”

With that, Wilson rethought her professional goals and gave in to her apparent destiny, finished her bachelor’s degree while still working full time at the hospital, took a semester off and then started on her master’s degree in 2010.

“In 2013, I sent my application to [then] Dean Paul Monagan at TJC, he hired me the next day, I started that fall and finished my master’s degree the next April,” she said. 

She started her teaching career in TJC’s vocational and associate degree nursing programs on the main campus in Tyler.

“I enjoy what I do,” she said. “I enjoy the students. When I came back to TJC, the program was still in the Pirtle building [before it moved into the new Rogers Nursing & Health Sciences Center], and that’s where I got my nursing degree. It felt really strange teaching in the rooms where I had been a student.”

Today, she leads the TJC Vocational Nursing cohort at TJC North in Lindale, which is a closer commute from her home in her native Winnsboro, where she lives with her husband, Stephan, a 1994 graduate of the TJC criminal justice program.

“I guess TJC did for me what it does for a lot of students, which is it gave me an opportunity,” she said. “I didn’t have scholarships or anyone paying my way. I had a Pell grant and my own money that I worked for. So did my husband.”

She continued, “TJC gave us the opportunity to get out, get in the field and go to work. I was 20 years old when I graduated from nursing school, and my husband was 23 when he graduated with his criminal justice degree. We needed to go to work to have money to support our daughter, who was 3 years old at the time.”

After graduating from TJC, Stephan Wilson worked five years for the Smith County Sheriff’s Office and then 21 years at Lindale Police Department before retiring this past January.

He recently embarked on a new career and, again, turned to TJC for direction.

“He was ready to retire from law enforcement, but he still wanted to work and for it to be a total change and something in healthcare,” she said. “So, he went back and got a second degree from TJC, this time in the health information technology program. He finished in May and went to work in the medical records division at UT Health; so instead of wearing fatigues, carrying a gun and driving a patrol car, he’s wearing dress clothes and working in an office every day.”

She’s a big proponent of the community college mission of creating opportunity.

“Our experiences are just a few examples of how TJC can move people forward,” she said. “It is a community college at its core. It helps people go to work in a stable position where they can support their families.”

She continued, “I see students today in the same place I was in when I was young. They need those same opportunities. I’m also thankful that I’m able to point students toward scholarships. I’ll nominate students for scholarships whenever I can because I know their situations and I know those who might be struggling more than others, and just a little boost might give them what they need.

“TJC is an affordable option that I’m proud to say I support, both as a faculty member and as a graduate.”

For more information on the TJC Nursing program, go to TJC.edu/nursing.

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