Archive for Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cellular biology major will graduate as candidate with distinction nearly two decades after being kicked out of KU

Jennifer Kissinger, a 36-year-old mother of her 14-year-old son, Ben, will graduate this year with a degree in biology. After Kansas University kicked her out her first time because of bad grades, she eventually returned and is a candidate to graduate with distinction.

May 19, 2011


Jennifer Kissinger got kicked out of Kansas University after three semesters when she was 19 due to bad grades. Now, the 36-year-old mother is getting ready to graduate as a candidate for distinction in cellular biology and hopes to continue her education in veterinary medicine.

Jennifer Kissinger got kicked out of Kansas University after three semesters when she was 19 due to bad grades. Now, the 36-year-old mother is getting ready to graduate as a candidate for distinction in cellular biology and hopes to continue her education in veterinary medicine.

2011 KU Graduates

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Perhaps the first thing you need to know about Jennifer Kissinger is she thinks tapeworms are cute. And she searches through the guts of fish to find them.

The 36-year-old undergraduate student will be graduating from Kansas University this year with a degree in cellular biology. And she’s a candidate with distinction.

She’s a Lawrence kid, she said. Her family moved here when she was 9, and she’s been here ever since.

That part about being a candidate for distinction, by the way, is a long way away from her first effort at going through KU, which she tried right out of high school. The first semester she did well. The second semester, they told her to straighten up. After the third, they told her, “You’re out.”

“I was terrible,” she said. “I wasn’t focused. … I was just a kid. Boy, I wish I knew then what I know now.”

After leaving school, she met her longtime boyfriend Tim Richards, who’s an auto mechanic. A master mechanic, she corrected herself.

They had a son, Ben, who’s now 14. She worked for years with children with special needs and operated a day care out of her home.

She got tired, though, of no sick days, no benefits and no vacation.

So she decided it was time for a change. She had been shadowing a veterinarian, and thought she wanted to be a vet. So she applied to go back to KU.

“They said, ‘Oh, no way,’” she said.

Actually, they were a lot nicer than that, she said. They suggested she try to go back to Johnson County Community College. Which she did. She earned much better grades. Mostly A’s, in fact. KU took her back. But they were watching. Watching to make sure she didn’t slip up.

This might be a good time to mention this: Kissinger said she knows some people can see her as a sort of dumb-blonde type. She’s got a high-pitched sort of voice, a friendly, bubbly personality and when one professor asked her to give a presentation to a bunch of other professors, she knew the material, but didn’t even know how to use PowerPoint.

But, the bigger point is, Kissinger is not to be underestimated. Here’s one semester’s worth of courses for her: Western civilization (KU’s read-a-book-a-week class on philosophy and the human condition), organic chemistry, calculus and something called “parasitology.” (That one featured the cute worms, she said.)

In the middle of that semester, her grandmother went to the hospital, and later died. She took it hard. She comes from a close family.

Then, her father was diagnosed with liver cancer, and had a long fight that Kissinger and her two sisters had to help fight through, because her parents were divorced. He died, too.

Kissinger said she’s paid for school using loans, mostly. Her family has had to sacrifice, living in a duplex instead of buying that land Richards always wanted, for example.

While at KU, Kissinger got connected with Kirsten Jensen, a professor who studies the cute worms, and Kissinger began to research them herself.

She noticed some similarities between a few of them, and presented her findings at a parasitology conference (after she learned how to work the PowerPoint).

She practiced and practiced her speech while traveling to the conference, and was quite nervous. She was the sixth person to talk, she remembered, and everyone else seemed like they were bombing.

But she talked about the cute worms. And how she’s found four kinds of them that have similar characteristics, and it could be (“could be,” she stresses) a new genus — a new classification of cute worms that no one else has noticed before.

And when she got done, that room filled with professors was clapping. Clapping for her. One gave her a hug.

“I was on a scientific high,” she said.

She’s enjoyed her research, and several of her professors and peers have suggested she become a professor. (She still wants to be a vet.)

In the course of a two-hour conversation, it’s clear she’s still a little conflicted as to what she wants to do next. Her bachelor’s degree alone doesn’t get her to many of the career paths she wants, but more degrees means more debt.

She’s not making the decision alone, she said. Tim and Ben will be involved, too.

“It was tough at times,” Richards said. “It’s tough with her going to school, just juggling everything else.”

But he encouraged her to go, and helped her through the tears, and celebrated her successes, too.

“I didn’t expect,” Tim said, before taking a cautious look in Jennifer’s direction, “for her to do as good as she did.”


sweetiepie 7 years, 1 month ago

This young woman worked at my vet's office, and I never saw her as a "dumb blonde" type at all--she was always very knowledgeable and very helpful. I wish her enormous success.--she deserves it!

goin66047 7 years, 1 month ago

You will never find a more determined girl! She worked so hard and there are so many that are very proud of her! Congrats Jenny on all your success!

EarthaKitt 7 years, 1 month ago

You'll never meet a kinder, gentler soul. I will be forever grateful that she helped raise my son.

Way to go Jenny. You believed in yourself!

Sigmund 7 years, 1 month ago

Inspiring story filled with determination. I would wish Jennifer best of luck, but because of her persistence I doubt she will need it.

Martha Oldham 7 years, 1 month ago

I am so happy for you! Nice story in the paper. Murphy, Sadie and Agnes loves you.

srichardson22 7 years, 1 month ago

SO excited for what the future holds for this amazing woman!! Congratulations Jenny!!

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