This May, six years after leaving the cult she was born and raised in, dual major soon-to-be UNM alum and single mother to five daughters, Jennifer Jenson, will graduate with majors in Interpersonal Communications and Psychology. She will have completed her degrees with a 3.9 GPA under her belt, a kindergartner on her hip, twin teenagers, and 18 to 21 credit hours per semester of experience up her sleeve.
Only a few years ago, she’d just left behind the “Norman Rockwell” traditionalist lifestyle she was born into and a family disapproving of her dissonance with their values. At the time, she had only her high school degree and was staying at home to take care of her children.
Jenson moved to Los Alamos from Washington D.C. in 2015 with four of her young daughters in tow. Her family, back home in the rocky mountain west, were already pretty far away from where she settled with her children in New Mexico.
She’d lived in Los Alamos for four years by the time she made the decision to leave behind the traditionalist lifestyle she was born into and a family disapproving of her dissonance with their values. In doing so, she also lost the local Los Alamos community she'd established through other people that were also part of the cult. Jenson had to start from scratch in a place she had built a home in over the years. She also just welcomed a fifth daughter into her life who was two years old when everything came crashing down for Jenson.
With no support system left for her in New Mexico, she forged her own career path with sheer self-compassion and determination in the company of the new support system of other mothers, professors, friends, and her partner that she amassed after the divorce in 2018.
Jenson’s family operates on a very strict religious ideology. When Jenson got a divorce, her family was not supportive. “They were convinced that I’ve ruined my life and my children’s lives. I’m a part of the world now, and it’s not good for them,” she said.
As a result of her shrinking support circle since being estranged from her family, Jenson had little idea how she was going to prioritize both getting acquainted with a new Los Alamos -- one without any more social support -- and caring for her young children, let alone trying her hand at college. Coming from a community that centered its entire identity around what she could provide to the world and the role she would play for others, it's no mystery why she arrived at her first semester of college with no idea where it might take her.
College was never something that was ever going to be a part of her story, Jenson said. Getting an education was not in her cards. However, alone with all of her children, it was the only option for her. She felt like she had to make it work for the sake of her career and her family and the lifestyle she wanted to provide for them.
Jenson felt the urgency to plan out her career moves immediately upon applying to UNM. Whatever opportunity she chose, it needed to be flexible enough to give her time with her kids.
At the time, Jenson recalled that she was heavily interested in both the Communications and counseling tracks. She chose Psychology over counseling because of the flexibility it provided for more time with her kids. “The background baseline was I didn’t have a choice,” Jenson reflected.
Two years ago, when she started her trek to earning her degree, Jenson said that for all she knew, her entire world had just come to an end. “My marriage was over. The community that I had built, my self-identity was gone. The local components of that were gone, too.”
Though she didn’t have familial support through these life changes, she was able to curate another hefty support group in New Mexico since being alienated from old familiar cult members. Slowly, other mothers and the local community began to notice that Jenson has an innate way of giving more insight on the experiences of mothers and single parents with young children; demographics often overlooked when it comes to logistical planning. They started to believe in Jenson well before she, herself, did.
When she made the jump to student enrollment, there were many people encouraging her to “go for it”, yet she could hardly believe it when people told her she was capable. It was difficult for her to accept her professors’ encouragement, too. They pushed her to think critically and asked her questions that sparked her curiosity. These were helpful tools to help her unpack her own thoughts after spending so much of her life in a cult.
The culture she grew up in starkly contrasted what she was thrust into in New Mexico. Her old life operated on specific parameters, so when her professors handed her assignments which gave her a chance to explore her own thoughts and ideas, she discovered parts of herself she hadn’t uncovered yet. Simple class discussions excited her from the beginning because she was able to fully engage in these conversations with different points of view and experiences than what she’d been exposed to back home.
Within the new community she’d forged from the ground up, there were enough people believing in her that thought that she had something to give. They lightened the load of all she provided for her children as a single mother. “I’ve made every event and I’ve been there for every illness with my kids,” Jennifer acknowledged, but through much of it, she had people who picked up and dropped off her children for school.
With all of this piling onto her already heaping plate of responsibilities, it took a lot of encouragement from those around her to convince Jenson that college was worth investing her time and energy into. When she started out, Jenson thought, “There's no way this is actually going to happen. There's no way I'm going to make it that far. I'm going to trip to the finish line”.
When her first semester started, Jenson didn’t know that double majors were out of the ordinary. Until she was well into her degree program, she didn’t know she’d far exceeded the average 15-credits-per-semester template most UNM students stick to. She’d been taking up to 21 credits per semester.
Jenson knew there were going to be huge sacrifices to her routine that came from going back to school. Still, she was able to provide for her children and maintain some level of availability for them. It meant a lot of late nights or early mornings where she was up doing school assignments, though. “Sometimes, I knew I would be short on an assignment or I’d be tired. They’d be having grilled cheese for dinner for the third night in a row ‘cause I’d have a paper due,” Jenson recalled.
It may take a while for her children to recognize all of the work that Jenson herself put into giving her children stability after they, too, were uprooted from their old life, but there were always a few constants that Jenson worked her hardest to designate to their routines— with some help. Jenson has one dear friend who has brought her a meal every week for two and a half years now. Others have helped with rides to and from her children’s extracurriculars.
The leniency of her professors was also a great assistance. “I was really fortunate that I could constantly email my professors, saying, ‘my kid’s puking. I’m sorry, this paper is going to be an extra day late’, or ‘I need to work ahead because my kid’s got a competition coming up’,” Jenson explained.
It paid off, literally. Jenson is graduating with her bachelor’s degree in Interpersonal communication and psychology on academic scholarship. She’s maintained a 3.9 or 4.0 through it all, which means that she’ll be graduating without any student debt hanging over her head. When she sat down after collecting her robe, cords, sashes and honor records, she began to tear up. “This is kind of huge,” she said.
“When I started this, my baby wasn’t even potty trained yet. Now she’s in kindergarten and riding a bike on her own and my teenagers are learning to drive”. Her twins are also starting to look at colleges, approaching a similar stage in life to Jenson’s.
“I never thought this would be part of my life's venture or plan. Having an education is just not something that–it's–nobody can take it away from me. Now I have this. It's mine.” – Jennifer Jenson
She may not believe it’s real until her certificate is in her hand, but Jenson is already thinking miles ahead about what she plans to do with her Bachelor’s degree. She currently works for the Los Alamos Arts Council doing outreach coordination. She is connecting with many organizations in town on “deep dives” — talks that are presented with other organizations in town around topics like gender identity and gun control in America.
Jenson is looking for ways to create more “harmonious” conversations in those high-charged conflicts. She is working to put together large-scale regional events for these organizations and to create an artist-in-residence and teen studio program with them.
Jenson credits schooling for giving her these opportunities and connections. New experience in Interpersonal Communications and Psychology has given her a foundational skill of communication that she wants to build on. Currently, Jenson wants to attend UNM’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution training to gain more tools, including but not limited to family law, and is trying to locate funds.
“There’s a large social change occurring in our nation where we are looking at these more difficult topics and addressing them head-on and finding resolutions. I want to be a part of that,” Jenson said.
Though she is cognizant of the level of hard work she’s put into finishing school, she says she isn’t fully aware of the scope of it. It was just “what was there” and she didn’t feel that she had a choice. She said she didn’t know what she was doing or what she was about to get into, and she still doesn’t.
She reflected on parenting and wrapping up school two years after it all began. “I truly did not ever picture myself actually graduating… even when I was in class. It felt like trying to stand in a hammock most days,” Jenson said.
“I didn’t know what I was expecting, but ‘I don't know’ is a place. ‘I don't know’ is a full sentence.” Jenson may not know what her destination is, but she’s content with that. “It’s taking those five minutes to do it. Then you take the next five minutes and then the next five minutes.” – Jennifer Jenson
Jenson is confused by all of the people in her life that marvel at her efforts and admire her for all of the work she’s put into her family and career. She thinks of it as she saw the opportunity UNM provided and took it without knowing what she would be getting into.
Since she grew up in a vacuum with all of the same ideas and experiences, the outlook she’s gotten from being introduced to new perspectives at UNM has been one of the greatest gifts, Jenson admitted. She believes it’s made her a much better person. As she moves on, she will have new opportunities to work in different capacities with other organizations.
Jenson would like to thank Tjett Gerdom for making her smile on even the hardest days, the P.E.O. chapters of Los Alamos, along with the parish of St. Job of Pochaev in Los Alamos. Both organizations were a constant source of support throughout all of this. She gives many thanks to those that believed in her when she did not.