The following is the full story written on behalf of the national Campus Compact about my life as an engaged citizen from college to now. An abbreviated version of the story will be sent out in late-April through national Campus Compact’s newsletter, Campus Compact in Action.
A literacy program ran by Indiana Campus Compact inspired one undergraduate participant to commit to a lifetime of service. A decade and a half later, J.R. Jamison serves as the Associate Director of Indiana Campus Compact and is the Co-Founder of The Facing Project, a national organization that connects people through stories to strengthen their communities. This is his story about his path to engagement.
A crush on a college classmate nearly 14 years ago changed the course of J.R. Jamison’s life.
At the time, he was studying Cultural Geography and Creative Writing and counting down the days when he could leave Ball State University, the city of Muncie, Indiana, and follow his dream of becoming a writer for a major magazine like National Geographic. As a senior in college, he wasn’t involved in his community and hadn’t thought twice about volunteering or giving back. His crush, however, was actively involved. So to attract attention he did something unexpected: he found himself in Student Voluntary Services signing up to tutor a child in an afterschool reading program. That one action set forth a ripple that has defined his work and what he now considers his life purpose.
J.R. admits he had no idea at the time what he was getting into and feared whether or not he’d be able to tutor a kid; he even thought about how he could back out once he won over his crush. But then he met Grayson, his tutee, and realized there was no backing out—not because he felt trapped—because Grayson needed him and perhaps he needed Grayson as well.
Though J.R. was slated to receive a 1st or 2nd grader, Grayson was a bit older than others in the program. Grayson was 14 and in the 8th grade. He only knew sight words: “at, be, can, it, to,” and so on. J.R. couldn’t believe Grayson had been passed on to the 8th grade without knowing how to read. Beyond helping Grayson improve his reading, the experience had J.R. questioning the educational system and how this could happen. After some searching, he kept finding the same answer: poverty. Poverty that not only affected Grayson’s ability to read, but also his school system and the type of resources they were receiving to assist students like him.
Despite circumstances, J.R. and Grayson were able to improve Grayson’s reading by one level by the end of the academic year, and the development of the relationship included an unintended outcome—the first step toward a life commitment to community engagement for J.R. After being exposed to the reality for a kid in his own town, a kid whose future opportunities had the possibility of being limited because of lack of resources, J.R. sought out other ways he could get involved to be a part of the solution. He was pointed in the direction of Indiana Campus Compact programs, primarily the Indiana Reading Corps.
But with graduation soon approaching, a bag packed, and a passport in hand, the idea of giving up his dream to work for an AmeriCorps afterschool literacy program run by Indiana Campus Compact—an organization that sounded like, in his mind, an economical hatchback—was a no go. After some quick soul searching, he unpacked his bag, put away his passport, and applied for a one-year position through the Indiana Reading Corps to lead the afterschool tutoring programs coordinated by Ball State in the Muncie community—the same program that paired him with Grayson.
Four weeks later, he was hired and sent to Indianapolis to meet with others who were coordinating literacy programs throughout the state because of Indiana Campus Compact. It was in that meeting he became hooked on the uniqueness of the Compact. J.R. said:
“Like-minded people from various disciplines and institutional types were coming together to say, ‘How can we learn from each other to impact our local communities while helping our students become well-informed, engaged citizens?’ I was blown away by this re-visioning of the role of higher education as change-makers for the public good.”
The one-year commitment turned into two, which led to graduate school and then to full-time employment with Ball State running their civic engagement initiatives. Two years later, he joined the staff of Indiana Campus Compact in the state office as their Program Director and then as their Associate Director.
During his eight-year tenure on the staff of Indiana Campus Compact, J.R. has continued his commitment to being a part of the solution to improve communities, and, in turn, improve himself.
“I came into this work feet first ready to make a difference, and I thought that difference was through ground-level volunteering. But I found there was a shift that needed to happen within structures if we want to see true sustainable change happen,” he said. “So I started digging into the work of institutional change and figuring out what Indiana Campus Compact could do to move our campuses and their communities forward. It took a lot of work. I often joke with people that my Master’s came from Ball State, but my Ph.D. came from Campus Compact.”
That work has included building programs and frameworks for campuses to develop Centers for Service and Engagement, securing over $4,000,000 in funding for campus-community projects, and developing an institutional change rubric with Indiana Campus Compact Executive Director Maggie Stevens that helps campuses identify where and how they’ll embed community engagement into the fabric of their institutions (the rubric has been used by over 40 campuses as nearby as Indiana and as far away as China).
And it was at an Indiana Campus Compact gathering in 2011 where he met his co-founder of The Facing Project, author and journalist Kelsey Timmerman.
At that gathering, Kelsey and J.R. began a conversation and soon realized they were neighbors. For five years the two had shared a mailman, a garbage man, shopped at the same grocery, and had many of the same interests, but their paths had never crossed. This encounter created a conversation on what engagement means in our communities when we don’t know our neighbors.
At the time, Kelsey was working on a writing project he named “Facing Poverty” where he paired writers with storytellers who were living in poverty as a way to raise awareness about their lives in Muncie through first-person stories. Kelsey asked J.R. to be a writer on the project, and J.R.’s passion for writing was reignited. Though his love for writing and storytelling had never died, it had taken a backseat as he worked connecting campuses and communities.
The reignition sparked an idea: What if they shared “Facing” as a means to connect people through stories to strengthen their communities?
In the summer of 2012 they did just that. The two co-founded The Facing Project and worked with five cities to pilot. A year-and-a-half later, The Facing Project is in cities across the US facing issues from poverty to autism. There are currently 10,000 Facing Project books in distribution with over 100 first-person stories being used in high school and college classrooms, utilized by doctor offices and clinics for families, and inspiring people to connect and get involved. You can read more about what’s happened in communities because of these Facing Projects here.
“Life has truly come full circle,” J.R. said. “I started out wanting to be a writer, but then got pulled in the direction of making change in the educational system by helping institutions recommit to their communities. And now? Now I get to dabble in both.”
Fourteen years later, J.R. has no idea what happened to his former crush. In fact, he wasn’t sure where his crush was just a few weeks after stepping foot into Student Voluntary Services. When asked if he has any regrets about the career path he has chosen, he said his only regret is losing touch with Grayson.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and wish he could know how he inspired me and all of my work. Whether I’m training faculty on service-learning curriculum development, volunteering, or helping communities tell their stories through The Facing Project, all of the ripples that have happened, literally across the country, were started by my first meeting with Grayson during an afterschool program in a cinderblock building in Muncie, Indiana.”
Disclaimer: The Facing Project is a standalone national organization and is in no way connected to Indiana Campus Compact.