From IWU Magazine, Winter 2015-16 edition

Elizabeth Jensen brings lessons from her lifetime of experience in education


Elizabeth Jensen
Elizabeth Jensen

One of the many holiday celebrations that Elizabeth Jensen attended in December was Hanukkah Dinner, an annual event open to the entire IWU community. After the dinner, one student approached the wife of Illinois Wesleyan’s 19th president and asked her how she felt about hugs. “I like them,” Jensen responded. “Then can I give you one?” the student asked. 

“So I feel like, oh, I’m in!” Elizabeth says, recalling the moment with a laugh and a warm smile. 

As her husband was being interviewed as a top candidate to replace retiring President Richard F. Wilson, Elizabeth had the chance to meet and dine with Illinois Wesleyan faculty, trustees, staff and students. “Everyone seemed to know each other. They were all friends, and they treated us the same way,” she says. “I later told Eric, even if you don’t get the job, we just had the nicest weekend in a long time.”

Elizabeth also respects the IWU community because it speaks so clearly to the power of education to transform lives — a power she has felt in her own life. The youngest of 13 children, she was a first-generation college student. She later became a teacher, then earned her master’s degree in a pioneering program that explored how to use computers effectively in the classroom. She also saw the benefits of a liberal arts education through the couple’s children, Joe and Jessica, who both attended small, private colleges.

“Education has been a major factor in my life,” she says, “and that makes me feel very passionate about it.”

Elizabeth was born in the mountains of North Carolina. Soon after her birth, her father moved the family to a property outside Williamsburg, Va., where he made his living as a carpenter. With many mouths to feed, the family learned to get by through self-sustenance. “We raised everything we ate,” she says. Though days were filled with chores, there were fun times. “We were just a loud, rambunctious family.”

College seemed out of reach. But Elizabeth began to consider it from an early age, and was lucky enough to have teachers who supported her. She also credits her sister Shelia as an example. “After our mother died, Shelia really raised us, but she also continued to go to high school and worked part-time. She was a great role model and, at the same time, was very supportive.”

Elizabeth’s college dream came true when she attended James Madison University, then known as Madison College. She struggled for a while before she adjusted to college’s academic rigors, and got used to being around classmates who came from more privileged backgrounds. “You learn to sit and watch,” she says of the process of learning various social norms. She admires how IWU offers support specifically designed for first-generation students. “I can only imagine how helpful that kind of support would have been to me at the time.”

Elizabeth was uncertain about a major, but once she settled into early childhood education she knew she’d made the right choice, “absolutely loving” her first teaching job at an elementary school in a small Virginia town. Most of her students were the children of the local crab fishermen. Wanting to find out firsthand what their lives were like, Elizabeth spent a day working on a crab boat and enjoying every minute.

Elizabeth & Eric Jensen
From the first time they stepped foot on campus, Elizabeth and Eric Jensen say the Illinois Wesleyan community made them feel at home.

Learning new things has always been a passion for her, she says: one she likes to pass along to her students. “When you get them excited about something new they are learning, you can see their eyes light up and the smiles on their faces. I’m the same way.”

Her curiosity and desire to obtain an advanced degree led her to the University of Oregon in the 1980s. At the time, Apple was coming out with its first computers for use in the home. Oregon professor David Moursund envisioned how those computers could also be used in the classroom and designed a program for educators like Jensen to become pioneers in the brand-new field of computers in education. Elizabeth taught during the school year and spent three summers at Oregon, completing her degree. She then worked as a computer specialist for York County and Newport News, Va., public schools, guiding teachers on how to best use computers as teaching tools.

During this time, she met Eric in a rec league volleyball class in Williamsburg, where Eric was teaching at William and Mary. Elizabeth’s family wasn’t sure how they’d get along with a professor, but Eric won them over with his down-to-earth warmth and genuine interest in their lives. Elizabeth also enjoyed getting to know Eric’s family and the Chicago area where they lived. “It’s a city Eric loves,” she says, “and I quickly learned to love it, too.”

Elizabeth has a long resume of grade levels and subjects, including math, reading and English. She switched to middle school physical science at one point. “My daughter was a biochemistry major, and I take full credit for that, because she was my guinea pig, ” says Elizabeth with a laugh. “She and I would rehearse all the experiments in our kitchen, before I went in to teach those experiments to my students.”

Now grown, Joe and Jessica are pursuing lives transformed by their college experiences. An English major who also loves the sciences, Joe was able to pursue his interest in composition and literature at the College of Wooster, even writing plays performed by fellow students. He now works in health information systems for a hospital system in Seattle. Jessica’s undergraduate experiences at Earlham College included an NSF research fellowship at the University of Chicago. She is now at the University of Minnesota pursuing a master’s degree in public health. 

Early in her experience as the wife of a college president, Elizabeth says she is still in learning mode, but enjoying the process. She looks forward to traveling with Eric to visit IWU alumni and friends across the country, as well as entertaining members of the campus and surrounding community at the President’s House. In that area, she says, it’s not different from Eric’s past jobs, where he would bring home dinner guests, often unannounced. “At least now, I will have some warning,” she says with a laugh. 

She is also exploring ways where she can make her own personal contribution to the campus and community. A professor told her about IWU’s Young Scientists summer camp that invites middle-schoolers to campus for hands-on experimentation and student-designed projects. “I kept all my teaching aids for science classes,” she says, “so I am ready to go.” 

Return to our main story about Illinois Wesleyan's new president, Eric Jensen.

Learn what our "lightning round" of questions reveal about IWU's new president.

Visit the Office of the President's official web page.