December 13, 2004

Graduation holds promise for Jennifer Hart

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. - - Mornings, 30-year-old Jennifer L. Hart is a Southern Illinois University Carbondale student, studying such subjects as organic chemistry, soil microbiology and plant physiology. Afternoons, she turns into a teacher, home schooling two little boys who learn best when swinging upside down or turning somersaults. And Dec. 18, she'll become an SIUC alum, with a shiny new bachelor's degree in plant and soil science and a 4.0 grade point average.

"I've been saying, 'When Mommy's done with school, it will all get better,' but then Leif (her 8-year-old son) will say, 'Oh, no - - when you're home it means I can't play as much,'"Hart said with a laugh.

Up at 6:15 a.m., in bed by 9 p.m., Hart also manages to cram into her busy schedule housework, cooking, garden care, some work in the family business, university laboratory responsibilities and a daily jog.

"I caught myself telling a friend on the phone, 'But doing dishes is my alone time - - you can't hear anything over the water,'" she said.

"You do what you have to do. It's been a little hairy, but now it's nearly done and over with."

For Hart, the road to this degree has been bumpy and full of detours. She started out, at the conventional age of 18, as a physics major at Carleton College, a highly competitive, private school in Minnesota, where she not only took a heavy academic load but did volunteer work and held down a campus job. It was too much even for this overachiever. When she began to suffer panic attacks, she said, a school official from whom she sought help told her, "Well, honey, everybody here has one or two breakdowns a year - - that's just the way our college runs."

Hart dropped out two weeks before the academic year ended. Because her departure stemmed from emotional stress, school rules required her to sit out for two quarters - - bad news for a physics major whose degree program followed a strict, quarter-by-quarter structure.

So Hart transferred to Hillsdale College in her home state of Michigan, a school that emphasized the humanities.

"I thought, 'If I'm at a college that's good at the humanities, I should major in the humanities,' so I switched to history, but I hated it - - it was just reading textbooks,"she said.

Nonetheless, she stuck it out for two years and might have gone on to finish that degree had she not suddenly and with no warning fallen in love with a man she'd known since she was 14.

David Hart, whom she'd first met when they both had summer jobs at a cherry orchard near her home in Clear Lake, Mich., had come back to see family before he started running his newly purchased business, Egyptian Photo, in Carbondale. They'd kept in touch on and off over the years, but a nine-year age difference kept it from being anything serious. Now, however, they were both in their 20s. She came over to pay a neighborly call, they went for a walk in the woods, and something clicked. After a two-week engagement, they were married.

Arriving in Carbondale in 1995 just after fall classes started, Hart got a job at a local garden center and began looking into changing her major to plant and soil science.

"I'd been working in an arboretum and at a greenhouse, and I liked working with my hands," she said. "I thought about a plant biology major, but they never go out and shove a seed into the ground and watch it grow."

She enrolled for spring semester and six days before it started learned she was pregnant.

"I thought I had the flu," she said. "It was a complete surprise. We were never supposed to have children - - my husband had had cancer and was 'sterile'."

Leif Hart was born Sept. 11, 1996, bringing Hart's schooling to a screeching stop. Eric, her second "miracle baby," followed two years later.

Hart began home schooling almost as soon as Leif could talk, driven by his constant questions about how things worked and why.

"I'm curious about how things work myself, so while it's not been easy, it's been really fun," she said.

In addition, the boys have such high energy levels she doubts they would have fit in public school.

"The teachers would hate us," Hart said cheerfully. "Leif wants to do everything while turning somersaults. He gets it, but they'd have him on Ritalin (a drug for hyperactive children) in seconds."

She herself came back to school in January 2003 when her sons were 6 and 4.

"I waited until Leif could make himself a peanut butter sandwich and pour his own glass of water," Hart said.

While she thought when she started that she might want to run a garden center after she graduated, she's since shifted to an emphasis on the soil science side of her degree. In the short term, that might translate into a job doing soil surveys, developing farm management plans or working in soil conservation or waste control. Long term, she has a different dream.

"I'd like to go to Africa because their soils are so poor," she said. "I don't know if I'd ever be able to do that, but I would like to be able to help people."

But no matter what she chooses, she'll apply to her life a lesson she learned while gardening in the asphalt parking lot behind her husband's business.

"You have to make yourself grow whatever will fit in that particular spot," she said.

(CAPTION: In full flower - - Jennifer L. Hart, a plant and soil science major at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, visits the University's greenhouse with her sons, Eric (left) and Leif, whom she home schools in her "spare" time. The 30-year-old full-time student will graduate Dec. 18 with a 4.0 grade point average.)