While the way of life changed for everyone during the spring semester of 2020, Jennifer Austin, an advisor and professor in the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences, uses her own story of perseverance to help students overcome the difficulties that have come along with adjusting to life during an ongoing pandemic.
One of the first things you notice about Austin within minutes of meeting her – even if it is via Zoom – is her infectious personality and positive attitude.
“I try to be as encouraging as possible and I think a lot of times students come to me because of that,” she said. “Students have been really on top of it. Even with it being such a hard time that we’re still going through, they really were great and did great. I think we’re trying to come out on the other side, but I think it requires a lot of empathy.”
In 2006, while a student at MTSU, Austin was driving home when she was involved in a hit-and-run accident.
“I’m a quadriplegic because of that,” Austin, who is paralyzed from the mid-chest down, said.
She continued, “Education really was what gave me so much of my independence back. After my accident, it took a few years, but I came back (to MTSU) in 2009 and finished my degree and went on to get my master’s.”
Austin said she thinks students feel like they can come to her because they know she faced and overcame her own obstacles.
“I do try to be as transparent as possible. I do think students come to me because they know I had my own hardships, and I think it’s cool they think they can come to me. They know it hasn’t been easy, but I am here and I’m doing it. With the pandemic, it’s very different than my accident, but I think students find it encouraging, and they do come to me, and I try to be as encouraging as possible. It may be rough for a little while, but it won’t be rough forever. It seems terrible now, but keep going because you have no idea what’s on the other side of that door.”
As a professor and advisor, Austin said she enjoys building different relationships with her students.
“(As an advisor), we’re with them sometimes for the full four years, and that’s really cool to watch them really grow as a person and get into their field of study and graduate,” she said, adding, “Teaching has been cool because it’s a different level (of connection), I think. You see a different side of students sometimes.”
Whether in the virtual classroom, or an online advising session, Austin said she encourages her students to enjoy their time at MTSU.
“I have students all the time who say, ‘I’m really trying to graduate early.’ And I tell them to stay in school as long as possible. Ride that train until the wheels fall off. Don’t rush it. It’s going to be there. Enjoy the ride.”
Now a university employee, Austin is proud of the role MTSU has played in her life.
“It’s been a big part of my life, and I am proud of that. In the interview (for the advising position), I was sitting with some of the people I knew from when I was a student, and it was like coming full circle. I was trying to explain why higher education was so meaningful in my life, and some of them knew me and knew my story, and understood it. I am sincere and genuine when I say it changed my life. I’m just appreciative for that.”
Austin has worked as an advisor for Human Sciences in the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences since late 2014.
— DeAnn Hays (firstname.lastname@example.org)