Tom Jackson came to Highline as an athlete, and left on a path toward becoming a leader.
Dr. Jackson, president of Humboldt State University in California, was named Highline’s 2020-21 Distinguished Alumnus last June. He came to Highline to compete in track, and graduated in 1982.
“I grew up in Hillman City (South Seattle) and attended Franklin High School,” Dr. Jackson said.
“I was encouraged by my childhood best friend’s family to consider college. I then looked at cost and what schools had track. Highline became that place,” he said.
“It wasn’t always easy. There were many times I struggled in class and with money. There was a time I thought I would have to quit due to a lack of money, but each time I found a way to keep going,” Dr. Jackson said.
His favorite classes were the History of Jazz and Finite Math.
“My ‘ah-ha’ moment to enter higher education came about a year before I finished my BS degree. I wanted to help students succeed and be an instructor for those who train students,” he said.
Dr. Jackson’s educational route took him to many new places.
“Leaving Highline, I was seeking a place different from Seattle. I did not want to remain in an urban area and wanted to explore the United States. After spending time in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and being stationed in Alameda, Calif. and Yorktown, Va., I had an adventurous spirit and wanted to explore,” he said.
“I also sought out colleges where I could remain involved outside of the classroom, places that would enable me to transfer in with my AA degree as junior, and colleges that had a track team in which I could participate,” Dr. Jackson said. “Using catalogs available in the library or sending a request to the campuses through standard mail, I looked at several universities. Ultimately, it was the financial package I received from Southwest Minnesota State University and the wonderful campus visit which convinced me that was the place.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business management at Southwest Minnesota State University, Dr. Jackson then got a master’s degree in counseling from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, and then his doctorate in educational leadership from The University of LaVerne.
“I looked for campuses that were very specific in their curriculum, had strong support and advising, a record of helping students complete their doctorate, and a program where I could remain working full time,” he said. “I worked full time nearby at the University of Southern California while attending weekends at ULV. Four years later, I completed the curriculum and dissertation and became Dr. Jackson.”
In addition to his academic career, Dr. Jackson is also a veteran.
“One of the most meaningful experiences I have had as a person has been the honor and privilege to serve in the military,” he said.
“Leaving high school, I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and worked on small boats as a machinery technician (small boat engineer), assisting with search and rescue in the Seattle area. Nearly 15 years later, after leaving the Seattle area to complete my BS degree before completing my active reserve duty, I joined the Texas National Guard (TXNG) in an effort to earn my commission as an officer and continue to serve,” Dr. Jackson said.
“While in TXNG, I was recruited to join the very strong Texas State Guard (TXSG). That fit me well and enabled me to truly rediscover the joy I had in serving,” he said.
“When I took another professional position, which caused me to leave Texas, I transferred to the Indiana Guard Reserve (IGR), another State Guard. Within the IGR, I thrived for the next 15 years, assisting primarily with officer training. I helped many become junior and senior officers over those years,” Dr. Jackson said.
“I retired from the IGR just last month as a colonel,” he said. “I am truly humbled by the 26 years of total service helping others.”
Sometimes that service was quite serious. “One of the most moving experiences I had while serving in the TXSG was during deployment to assist others impacted by Hurricane Rita and Katrina. I feel I made some small difference through my volunteer efforts.”
Dr. Jackson currently serves as the President of Humboldt State University, located in Arcata, Calif., about 275 miles north of San Francisco. Humboldt State, founded in 1913, has a total enrollment of more than 6,300 students.
“I am an educator. A teacher. Someone who wants to provide students with a positive and meaningful educational experience,” Dr. Jackson said.
“I am a person who values and respects the role and influence that a college education brings to a person, their family, and the society at large,” he said. “I am the first in my family to earn a college degree. To begin as a first-generation college student and eventually run a campus is a long way to go, but very doable.”
“Seeing students and staff succeed is extremely fulfilling as a president. Knowing how we are making a positive difference for others and our local community is also incredibly rewarding,” he said.
Dr. Jackson said his biggest challenge is “Continually finding ways to help and keep students inspired to stay in school.”
Dr. Jackson said his primary advice for students pursuing their post-secondary education is “Do everything you can to stay in school. The best way to get good grades and to stay in school is simply go to every class. It is really that simple.”
Showing up and doing the work is worth it, he said.
“Go to every class and you will finish with the degree. That degree turns into higher income, better health care, greater support or your family, and more opportunity to shape society and the world for the better,” Dr. Jackson said.
COVID-19 posed challenges for Humboldt State as well, he said.
“As a president, transitioning to virtual and hybrid online classes was a challenge we overcame very well. Ensuring that people get vaccinated for the greater good continues to be a challenge. And now, repopulating campus and relearning how to exist together in a new environment is a small challenge,” Dr. Jackson said.
“As administrators, we often face scrutiny for just trying to do the best we can. I wish we, as a society, were more supportive and respectful of each other, and would follow the golden rule more frequently,” he said.
During this already challenging time, Dr. Jackson and his family suffered tragedy.
“During Covid-19, I also faced the worst thing any parent could ever experience. My wife and I lost our 22-year-old son in a fatal car accident,” he said.
“We are still heartbroken. He had so much life and was a wonderful, empathetic and caring human being. To deal with that loss, in public, during COVID-19, was not easy; yet we did it. It has been a year,” he said.
About receiving Highline’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, Dr. Jackson said, “Highline has been so important to me. I remember walking on campus the first time. Seeing newer buildings and meeting faculty, student life professionals, and coaches.”
“I am beyond humbled to be recognized with this honor. There are so many amazing people who have walked through the doors of Highline and to be one of those bestowed with such an amazing distinction is difficult to imagine,” he said.
“As a student, I just wanted to do the right thing. I wanted to get good enough grades and prove I could finish,” said Dr. Jackson.
“I never imagined the degree, and the opportunities from that degree, that laid ahead of me. I was just a simple student, with little money, riding a small motorcycle to school each day trying to succeed,” he said. “And now, I still drive to a campus with a simple hope that I could inspire others to finish their degree and make a difference in this world and with their family.”