Once you have your college education, it’s something that can never be taken away from you. Often this is advice that is passed on to students to remind them of the importance of higher education and perseverance.
But for Jennifer “J.J.” Conn, this was something she believed deep in her soul. At times she wasn’t sure when, or how, she was going to get her college degree. She had been told she would never finish college, to not even try. But one way or another, she was going to prove her doubters wrong.
“I was always told that I would never go to college. My brother was expected to go to school, but I wasn’t supposed to. My parents always told me ‘you’ll never graduate, you’re never going to go get a bachelor’s degree. We’re not going to pay for it. You’re not going to do it. It’s not going to happen.’
“So I did it to spite them.”
While spending many of her teen years being told that college wasn’t in her future, Conn was busy applying for college in secret. She had saved up money from her high school job to help pay the college application fees. In a team effort, Conn would give the money to a friend of hers who would write checks to send off with the applications.
“I took the SAT and got really good scores. I knew I needed to do this. And I always believed that I was going to art school and get my art degree. I didn’t care what anybody said. Tell me I can’t do something and I’m going to go do it just to spite you.”
For Conn, getting her college degree was intensely personal. It wasn’t just the degree itself, but what it represented – the satisfaction of knowing you could succeed despite, regardless of what others thought. When she crossed the stage, she knew her life had changed forever.
“It felt like flying. Like I had jumped out of a plane. That euphoria of flying and floating there. It was the most amazing experience in the world and I was so happy that I couldn’t stop smiling for two weeks. And I felt like I could do anything, no matter what, I could do anything because I had accomplished this.”
Conn graduated from the Atlanta College of Art with her BFA in Illustration and a concentration in photography and printmaking. After the school closed down, she moved to New Mexico to get her MFA in the UNM College of Fine Art. But once she started taking classes, she found that her heart was torn between doing art for herself, and learning how to teach others to express themselves through their art, and she decided to get her MA in Art Education.
Energized by her own journey to get her college degrees, Conn decided to help others achieve their dreams of finishing college. She now works for the University’s Advising office making sure that every student that walks through her door gets the same chance she did.
“When I started at Atlanta College of Art, I became an advisor and I realized what advisors really do. Then I could start helping students and the crossed the stage at graduation, and every single one coming off of the stage was giving me a hug, and telling me ‘if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have made it.’ It was like ‘oh this is awesome!’ and it just makes every day different.
“Being that champion for them just makes me feel wonderful. Just to be able to do that for them, letting them know they have someone in their corner.
“I have one student who came to college thinking there’s no way. She was like me “there’s no way I can do this. My parents said I can’t do this.” She was told by a teacher that she couldn’t do this and after a semester or two of actually succeeding she started thinking ‘maybe I can.’
“It fulfills you and keeps you going. It’s not like some jobs that I watch my friends go to where they’re like ‘OK, I made it through the day. Great. I’m home.’ No. I come home and I’m like ‘I got this done today! And this student is doing this! and I helped this student And I had to go sit over in Financial Aid and help this student ask the right questions to get what they needed.’ It gives me the energy to keep going. You’re always problem-solving and working with them and seeing them overcome obstacles that I had no one with me to overcome.”