Section: Sports

From student-athletes to staff members at Kenyon College

From student-athletes to staff members at Kenyon College

Brian Janssen, left, and JJ Jemison, right | COURTESY OF KENYON COLLEGE

Most senior fall athletes are officially done with their athletic careers, and now will focus on the next part of their lives, whether that means enjoying the rest of senior year, applying to graduate school, finding a job or something else entirely. Two current staff members at Kenyon know the transition well: Dean of Students Brian Janssen, who swam at Denison University, and Senior Assistant Director of Admissions JJ Jemison ’13, who played soccer at Kenyon. While their paths are a bit different, both ended up working at Kenyon College as staff members. Janssen was recently introduced as the dean of students, while Jemison is starting in his sixth year working in the Office of Admissions. 

As high school students, both Janssen and Jemison were initially looking at Division I schools. “I was very naive,” Jemison said when reflecting on the college search process. “It wasn’t until later on in my high school career and playing travel soccer at a high level that I realized I wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was.” After graduating from Mount Vernon High School, Jemison spent a post-grad year at Berkshire School (Mass.), a college preparatory school, before coming to Kenyon.

A fellow Buckeye from Cincinnati, Janssen was originally looking at schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but opted for a smaller school following his mom’s advice. “I liked the smaller school atmosphere,” he said. “It just ended up being a good space for me.” At Denison, Janssen was a history major and had a minor in political science. 

Academics played a part in Jemison’s search as well, as he ended up majoring in American studies and concentrated in public policy. “Kenyon was kind of the perfect balance of high-level academics, in addition to a high-level soccer program, when I knew I could be competing for national championships year in and year out,” he said. 

Upon entering college, both developed lifelong relationships with their teammates. “I rely on those people,” Janssen said of his friends, whom he still keeps in touch with to this day. “We call each other during good times, bad times, get texts about people having kids.” For Jemison, the relationships started with the team and his first year advisor, Professor of Sociology Marla Kohlman. “Then it just spread out from there,” he said. “And I felt like literally every single person I met was so genuine and so caring, that I was supported.”

Each gained a clearer sense of himself during college. There were 100 student-athletes on the swimming and diving team at Denison, compared to the 20-25 at Janssen’s club in high school. Learning how to adjust made him realize what being a good teammate meant as he had to take on different roles and learn different responsibilities. At Kenyon, Jemison was encouraged to explore his identity and was empowered by it. “It was the first time in my life that I had learned to be unapologetically myself, and figure out what that even meant in the first place,” he said. Jemison feels liberal arts schools provide a platform to make mistakes and learn from them to be better in life. 

Both contributed to their teams’ successes. On the swimming and diving team, Janssen excelled. In the 1999 Division III Championships, he finished fifth in the 500-yard freestyle and seventh in the 1650-yard freestyle. Denison finished second with 382.5 points to Kenyon, which won with 670 points. On the pitch, Jemison was a potent striker for Kenyon, leading the team in goals (7) and points (17) and co-leading in assists (3) in 2012. That same year, the Lords lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to No. 19 Ohio Wesleyan University.

Immediately after finishing with their collegiate athletic careers, neither Janssen nor Jemison realized working in higher education was an option. Jemison initially wanted to go into the U.S. Marines right after college, until he received a call from Jon Moodey ’98 about returning to Berkshire to work in the admissions office, be a dorm parent, act as a student advisor and coach the three sports Jemison played in high school: basketball, track and soccer. 

Former Dean of Students at Denison Dr. Sarah Westfall helped Janssen realize that there were opportunities to work as a staff member in higher education. Janssen went on to earn his master’s degree from Miami University (Ohio) and eventually got his doctorate at The Ohio State University. After working at Portland State University as director of student organizations and leadership development, Janssen decided to return closer to home and to a smaller college. Kenyon fit that description. “I really value that liberal arts education, being on a small campus [and] being able to connect with people,” he said. 

Jemison was not planning on returning to Ohio, as he intended to stay in Massachusetts. Back in the Buckeye State for a Christmas party in 2015, Jemison met his future wife Mandy, and he decided to move back to the state and marry her. After moving back, he got a job in Kenyon’s Office of Admissions. “The idea of working at Kenyon, my alma mater, was also icing on the cake, so to say, but I was planning on moving back to Ohio because of her no matter what,” he said. 

Having experienced what it was like to have to balance life as a student-athlete, both expressed the importance of finding happiness in life. “If you see someone who you think is really interesting, reach out to them,” Janssen recommended. He also mentioned that your athletic identity will always be with you, even when it is not the primary dimension of your identity anymore. Jemison shared a similar sentiment. “I think happiness is the most important thing in life, and so being in a place where you can imagine yourself being genuinely happy, irrespective of playing a sport or doing X, Y or Z.”

Jemison was lucky enough to find happiness at Kenyon in both his role as a student-athlete and as a staff member. “I basically get paid to brag about my alma mater and just live my best life,” he said. “I feel like I’m helping make the world a better place. Even if it’s in a minute way, I’m impacting people’s lives.”

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