Meet James Jacobs (’24), whose path from a 27-year stint in the military to a new career in elementary education has included some very challenging obstacles—including a serious stroke and a lengthy hospital stay.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories highlighting a few Concordia’s uncommon graduates. Faculty and staff submit candidates for consideration. Stories are posted in the days leading up to commencement. View more uncommon graduates here

James Jacobs had just finished a class at Concordia University Wisconsin and was walking out to his car when everything suddenly went wrong. The world started spinning. He couldn’t walk to his car, couldn’t even stand. He started throwing up. Somehow, he managed to call 9-1-1 and soon an ambulance was on its way. Next thing he knew he was lying in a bed at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital.

It was a stroke. And it would be a month before he could go home.

James, a 27-year veteran of the United States Army, had recently retired from active duty and started a path to a new career. He originally joined the Army Reserve to earn some money for college, but he liked it so much he decided to become a career man. He worked in a variety of capacities, from nuclear warfare to railroad infrastructure, but he especially enjoyed being an instructor.

After his military retirement, he began to explore his higher education options and landed on Concordia for its combination of a faith-based education, excellent program reputation, and commitment to military veterans.

This weekend, he’ll join Concordia’s nearly 900 other graduates as they participate in commencement exercises. James will walk the commencement stage as a candidate for his Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. He has his sights set on teaching in a kindergarten classroom.

Kindergarten vet

James will acknowledge he doesn’t fit the typical prototype for a kindergarten teacher, but, nevertheless, he’s incredibly passionate about helping children start out on the right foot academically. Watching his daughter Madison, now 22, go through the education system reinforced to James how important the early years are.

“Those formative years, like kindergarten through second grade, they’re so foundational,” James said. “And if you don’t get a good educational foundation, everything after that, it’s a really hard struggle.”

He regrets that he didn’t do better in school during those early years. He never learned to enjoy it, and struggled because of it.

“I would like to prevent kids from making some of the mistake that I made when I was in school,” James said.

A seasoned veteran

Unlike many non-traditional adult students, James took almost all of his classes in-person at the CUW campus. Being significantly older than most other undergrads sometimes made things a little awkward, but it’s a situation he learned to embrace rather than struggle against.

“Everyone in my class was like the age of my daughter,” he said, “but as time went on, the students were all very welcoming, and by the time I finished, I did feel like a peer with all the 20 year olds. And I’m 48!”

“Sometimes they said I’m like their uncle,” James continued. “Like the cool uncle they can always come to if they have any problems. And so that’s how I would try to be.”

He has also appreciated all the support he’s gotten from the Veterans Office on campus. He hangs out frequently at the Howard J. Bogenschild Veteran and Military Affiliated Resource Center in Rincker Hall, enjoying the company of fellow veterans, as well as the helpful staff there.

“Most of my classes were at Rincker, so I would be in there almost every day between classes, talking to Kari [Metts] or Colonel [Keith] Casey, or whoever was in there. All of them are great!”

No warning signs

When the stroke hit, James had no reason to suspect he was at risk.

“I was fine before that happened,” he recalled, “and then it just came absolutely out of nowhere. And then I’m sitting in a hospital bed, not knowing if I’ll be able to walk again, or read, because of the double vision and cognitive delay, and things like that.”

It happened on October 24, 2022. By January he was walking again, and able to resume his classes for the spring semester. “I was back at Concordia taking 18 credits,” he said, “even though the doctors and physical therapists were trying to talk me out of it. They didn’t think I would be able to do that. But I was pretty adamant—and pretty stubborn!”

It would take a lot of work, as doctors told him the part of his brain that controlled standing and walking had suffered some permanent damage. “I couldn’t use it again, so I had to create new neural pathways.”

James credits a strong faith in God, along with great support from friends, family, and people at Concordia, for his exceptional recovery. His daughter moved in with him when he couldn’t drive or walk. His mother and his girlfriend, Irene, were both there for him, as well.

“Everyone at Concordia was very nice,” he said. “Dr. [Val] Keiper communicated with other professors, so they all knew what was going on. They were like, just worry about getting better, and then we’ll worry about you coming back when the time comes.”

Professor of Elementary Education Val Keiper, PhD, visited James while he was still in the hospital. Elizabeth Polzin, EdD, vice president of Student Success and associate professor of education, helped him with his course schedule and got him connected to CUW’s Academic Resource Center. There, he got set up with some textbooks on tape, while his reading cognition was still compromised.

“We’re really proud of what James has accomplished,” said Keiper. “He’s been an inspiration to us all. His commitment to children is evident in his patient, persistent approach.”

Fresh challenges ahead

And now, just over a year later, he’s student-teaching kindergarteners in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and preparing to walk across the stage at commencement on Saturday. He has also been honored with the Marsha Konz Education Award, given for superior achievement in the field of teacher education, and he’ll graduate Summa Cum Laude. What a journey!

The challenges ahead will be of a different sort—but they’re perhaps no less daunting. Have you ever been in charge of a room full of kindergarteners?

“Oh, yeah, it’s very challenging!” James said. “I’m working with 24 five year olds! It can be a headache, but it’s very rewarding. It’s really great to work with the kids, I love it.”

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