When Jennifer Allen graduated from Watertown High School in 2001, she considered furthering her education at Jefferson Community College. But after scoring poorly on her college placement exam, those plans were put on hold. “I decided to go into the workforce instead,” she says.
Jennifer knew she wanted to help people, so she started working as a Certified Nursing Assistant at Samaritan Keep Home after receiving her training through Jefferson-Lewis BOCES. She later took a job at the Jefferson Rehabilitation Center providing direct support to those with developmental disabilities, and eventually worked her way up to an assistant resident manager position at the nonprofit agency.
A year after graduating from high school, Jennifer got married. The marriage lasted several years, but eventually the couple divorced. In 2008, Jennifer gave birth to her son, Riley, and remarried. Although she is no longer married to her son’s father, the couple has a strong and supportive co-parenting relationship, Jennifer says.
She continued to support herself and her son by changing jobs and taking a position at the former Stream Global Services Call Center in Watertown. It helped pay the bills, but it was not the career Jennifer longed to have. “I still dreamed about going back to school,” she says. “I knew a college degree would allow me to help even more people.”
“I still dreamed about going back to school.”
While she had been in the workforce, Jennifer was also caring for a family member with a disability and witnessed firsthand the difficulties he faced while trying to get needed services. That situation was also a driving force in her decision to pursue higher education.
When her son was ready to start pre-kindergarten in 2012, Jennifer decided she was ready to start college. It had been 11 years since she had done poorly on that first college entrance exam, but she was determined not to let that prevent her from following her dreams. “I was still living on a limited income,” Jennifer says. “I was passionate about the human services field, and I really wanted to pursue a degree in that area.”
So she took the college placement exam for the second time, and although she received a low score, Jennifer did not let those results discourage her again. “I knew that I would need to take some basic remedial classes and wouldn’t get credit for them,” she says. “But I also knew those classes would be important in helping to prepare me for the next level of college courses.”
She took advantage of help in math and English, and both helped her start the long-awaited journey toward a college degree. “I especially needed tutoring to help with my writing,” Jennifer says. “It had been a long time since I had written a school paper.”
Jennifer started studying for an A.S. in Human Services, and after just one year of college, she decided to take on additional coursework to complete a second degree, an A.A.S. in Chemical Dependency. The new degree program had just been implemented in response to a strong need for more mental health and substance abuse counselors in the community, and at a time when a growing epidemic of opioid abuse was happening nationwide.
She was a “little nervous, but comfortable” when she came to Jefferson as an adult learner. “The younger students in my classes helped me with the technology, and it was a great experience,” Jennifer says. While at Jefferson, she worked diligently on her studies and earned membership in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
As with many adult learners, “it was challenging for me to find the time to complete my school work and not have it take away from my time being a mom,” Jennifer says. “I would drop Riley off at Pre-K, and then attend my morning classes. I would leave campus at 11 a.m. to pick him up and take him home to his dad, or to his great-grandmother’s place, and return to campus for the afternoon,” she says.
“I wanted him to see how hard I worked...”
After three years, Jennifer earned the two degrees at Jefferson, and all the time she was juggling her schedule to be a full-time mother to her son. But it was important for her to be an example to Riley. “I wanted him to see how hard I worked to earn my high grades,” she says. “I really hope he goes to college one day and starts at a local level. It was the best learning experience for me, and I wish that I had gone to college right after high school.”
The Chemical Dependency A.A.S. program at Jefferson offers students “real world” experience working with clients at local agencies in the community offering diagnosis and/or treatment services. While a student at Jefferson, Jennifer completed her internship at Occupational Medicine Associates, Watertown, and gained experiences with hair and urine drug analysis testing. She was hired to work in the office before she had even completed her studies at Jefferson.
After graduating in 2015, Jennifer had the 350 hours of education and training required by the Office of Addiction Services and Support (OASAS) in New York State to begin work as a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) trainee. She planned to take the state-required examination to obtain her license. Jennifer then began working at the Credo Community Center for the Treatment of Addictions, Watertown, after graduating from Jefferson.
While employed, Jennifer continued to pursue higher education and enrolled at Keuka College to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work. The Keuka classes were offered in Watertown and taught by local community professionals, so she was able to complete her coursework without the commute and apply her college course credits from Jefferson to transfer into the bachelor’s degree program.
It was during that period that Jennifer found it even more challenging to find the time for “self-care,” but she would eventually discover a way that would even allow her to spend time with her son. Riley had been taking Taekwondo classes, and Jennifer would sit and watch him participate.
Kicking Her Way to a Black Belt
Then she decided to give it a try herself and enrolled in Taekwondo classes being held at the same time as her son’s classes. The experience created not only a path to good health for herself, but also a mother/son bonding activity. Jennifer eventually earned a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo.
After two and a half years, Jennifer earned her bachelor’s degree in social work. But she didn’t stop there.
She enrolled in a masters program through the Jefferson Higher Education Center to obtain the degree through a collaboration between Jefferson, the SUNY College at Brockport and Nazareth College, Rochester. The JHEC program allowed her to complete all the required classes for her master’s degree on the Jefferson campus. “Being able to take classes in a master’s program right at JCC allowed me to continue working fulltime while raising my son, and achieve that black belt in Taekwondo,” Jennifer says.
After earning her master’s degree in social work, Jennifer started a new position at Credo Community Center as an integrated treatment therapist. Today, she holds the title of senior integrated treatment therapist at Credo.
“If not for JCC, I don’t think I would have gone to college,” Jennifer says. “JCC was close to home, and I didn’t have to travel. I am not an online learner; I definitely do better with classes held in person, and that was especially important to me.”
“If not for JCC, I don't think I would have gone to college.”
Reflecting on her college career, Jennifer says “who would have ever thought the girl who scored poorly on her college placement exam would graduate with a master’s degree and a 4.0 grade point average?”
“I’m just really grateful for JCC, and I hope my son follows in my footsteps,” she says.