After more than two years of classes, Jessica Nelson decided college wasn’t a good fit so she joined the military.
The Jackson woman, who later went on to get her college degree, now helps veterans transition from military life into classrooms. Her passion for such work has led to her appointment to the board of directors of the national Warrior-Scholar Project.
Other board members include the president and CEO of Marriott International, a former White House National Security Council director, a president emeritus of Cornell University, and a retired top military general, among others.
“It’s pretty humbling they think I can work alongside people of that caliber,” Nelson said.
A second chance at college
Nelson enlisted in the Marines where she provided support for troops on the ground.
As a topographic analyst, Nelson worked on maps and spatial awareness for troops. “I was active for five years and reserve one year.”
She left college, she said, because she wasn’t prepared for it. “It wasn’t for me at the time,” she said. “I’d also wanted to join the military since I was in high school.”
When Nelson finished her military career, she wanted to return to college, but at that point she was 29 and hadn’t been in a traditional classroom in six years. She knew she needed help.
“When I was going back to school I looked for programs to help facilitate nontraditional students go back to school,” Nelson said. “I found Warrior-Scholar Project and actually attended one of their boot camps.”
Warrior-Scholar Project gives enlisted veterans and service members the tools to excel at four-year universities. Through intensive one- to two-week academic boot camps, participants acquire skills necessary for the cultural shift from the military to higher education.
Nelson, who graduated with a degree in psychology from Smith College in Massachusetts, said the program was a key to her success.
“It was extremely helpful,” Nelson said. “I credit a lot of my academic success to the Warrior-Scholar Project.”
Nelson was so impressed with the program that she started mentoring other veterans. She said the need is there because veterans are leaving a structured environment and learning to study again. In the four years she has been working with the Warrior-Scholar Project, she has helped about 120 veterans make the transition.
Dedicated to helping others
Her desire to help didn’t stop there. Nelson is a hometown fellow and mobility innovation team fellow for the Jackson chapter of Lead for America, where she works with national and community partners to improve the lives of residents and families.
She also founded Grid North, a nonprofit that helps veterans in Mississippi transition into the workforce or find better jobs if already in the workforce.
“I really appreciate being able to give back like I’ve been helped,” Nelson said. “I feel like it’s our responsibility, those that have been in their footsteps, to give back.”
Nelson hopes to eventually open a community center for the LGBTQ community where members can gather, find resources and information. And, she wants to attend law school.
“My ultimate goal is to become an LGBTQ advocate and a veterans advocate,” Nelson said. “I hope to go to law school and become a legal advocate.”
Because of her personality and background, her accomplishments and goals come as no surprise to those who know her.
Avery Carmichael of San Diego met Nelson through the Warrior-Scholar Project after serving in the Navy.
“I was nervous just because it had been five years since I had taken any classes,” Carmichael said. “She helped give me the confidence that I could go back in the classroom and be successful.
“I think the big thing was that she had done the exact same thing before. I didn’t know many people in the military that wanted to go to a four-year university. She had been in my shoes.”
Dan LaFlamme of Piscataway, New Jersey, worked with Nelson as a staff member.
“It’s hard to put into words, but it’s fairly easy for me and others to pick up on that she cares about the program,” LaFlamme said. “She resonates with her students, former students and staff.
“She’s a genuine person and it’s easy to tell. The first meeting you can tell she’s a genuine person. That’s the highest compliment I can give anybody.”