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News: Roane State graduate Jennifer Russell is a story of redemption and determination

News: Roane State graduate Jennifer Russell is a story of redemption and determination

Jennifer Russell, a graduate of Roane State’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, prepares to feed the needy at the Maryville-Alcoa Church of God.​

Nov. 21, 2018

By Bob Fowler

Roane State staff writer

Ask Jennifer Russell about Roane State Community College, and she’ll tell you this: “Roane State taught me to never give up.”

For years, Russell said, she lived a hardscrabble life: a survivor of childhood sexual and domestic violence; a homeless drug addict all too familiar with life on the street; a dancer at seamy nightclubs throughout the South.

“I was a wild child,” she admits.

Now, she’s feeding many of Blount County’s needy through a ministry she started titled “God’s Kitchen” and helping the community in other ways. Russell, 39, is also a graduate of Roane State’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program and passed her national board OTA exam on her second try.

“As a kid, I just wanted a normal life, but I didn’t have a childhood,” she said. “I learned the street life at a very early age. We would live in poor housing, or in projects, or on the streets.”

She gradually descended into drug addiction. Eventually, she started attending church “every now and then, and that motivated me to quit drugs. That was really rough,” Russell said.

Russell was accepted into Roane State’s OTA program on her second attempt in the spring of 2016. “It was really hard,” she said. “Any time I failed an exam, I wanted to relapse,” she said of the lingering lure of illicit drugs.

Sue Sain, academic fieldwork coordinator for Roane State’s OTA program, provided invaluable advice and help as Russell struggled to prepare for the training, Russell said.

“I liked the fact that the (Roane State) classes are smaller, and the teachers are accommodating and more helpful,” Russell said. “I did have a messed-up brain from all the drugs I’d done, but they were very patient with me about that.”

“She (Sain) told me that the things I’d been through in my life would make me a better OTA,” Russell said. “I was finally around positive people.”

Russell recalled the ordeal of her husband’s battle with prostate cancer and how she once came to class after a sleepless night at the hospital. OTA Program Director Teri Gergen “saw I was falling asleep and told me to take a nap” in an available room at the college.

“It was stuff like that – it wasn’t about the number of students enrolled,” Russell said. “Roane State instructors actually care about their students.”

Gergen said Roane State was unaware of Russell’s backstory when she applied for admission. “She earned her position, and ultimately her degree, through grit and determination,” Gergen said.

“There is a special place in Jennifer’s heart for those who have experienced abuse and neglect; a compassion that is exemplified through her unyielding commitment to service.”​

Roane State is a two-year college providing transfer programs, career-preparation programs and continuing education. Founded in 1971, the college has campuses in Crossville, Harriman, Huntsville, Jamestown, Knoxville, LaFollette, Lenoir City, Oak Ridge and Wartburg.

For more information, visit or call (865) 882-4554.

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