When Jenna Blythe-Tjia was picking fruit in the orchards of Wapato, as an 11-year-old, one day leading student recruitment efforts as a Program Manager in the Office for Diversity & Inclusion was the furthest thing from her mind. 

Like most of her schoolmates, Blythe-Tjia worked as an agricultural laborer during the weekends and summers of her elementary and secondary education. This didn’t seem unusual to her: Wapato, Washington, where she grew up, was a community largely comprised of migrant laborers and their families as well as the members of the Yakama jenna blythe tjiaNative American Reservation on which the city was built. Consistently ranked as one of the poorest cities in the state of Washington, Wapato, with income levels at roughly half of the median income of the rest of the state, Blythe-Tjia’s rural hometown seemed to offer little in terms of opportunities for advancement. Most of the students at her school were on free or reduced lunches. The people who were considered wealthy in her area were those who owned the orchards, or their own fruit stands. 

Still, she said, she never doubted that she would go to college. Born in Seoul, Korea, Blythe-Tjia was adopted at five months old by the Blythes, a couple with two sons who longed for a daughter. Blythe-Tjia was raised with a strong work ethic, and watched her two older brothers go to college with the knowledge that she would attend a university one day herself. Her parents, a postal worker and secretary, hadn’t completed college, but, said Blythe-Tjia, “they wanted their children to have better lives.”

Bylthe-Tjia was one of only 70 students in her graduating class. She remembers those years of primary education with fondness for the diversity she experienced among her classmates, but also with the recognition of her own isolation as the only student of Korean descent. She recalls being called a “chink,” or “yellow,” by other students. 

She credits her experience growing up in such a unique environment, as the Korean-born daughter of a Caucasian family, raised among a vibrant Latino population on a Native American reservation, for much of her appreciation of the benefits and beauty of diversity. By second grade, her classrooms were bilingual; never having experienced a racially homogenous environment, she came to understand firsthand the wealth that numerous backgrounds and perspectives brought to the table.

After graduation, she began attending Washington State University. During the summers she returned to Wapato to work in the orchards or fruit stands. Her experiences growing up with poverty motivated her to help the underserved, and so she returned to Wapato as a first-grade teacher after completing her undergraduate degree in education. One of her brothers, who also earned a teaching degree, also returned to Wapato to teach. 

Seeking a further challenge, Blythe-Tjia decided to pursue a master’s degree in education, and ultimately began work teaching second grade in a school district over the Cascade Mountain Range in Seattle. “I went from one of the lowest-achieving districts,” she said, “to one of the highest achieving districts.” In all, she taught elementary school for nine years.

It was after experiencing the full spectrum of teaching, from working with students in poverty to students who benefitted from affluence, that Blythe-Tjia realized that teaching wasn’t her true calling. She loved the students, but the classroom was not where she felt she belonged. 

About this same time she reached a turning point in her personal life. She had met someone special online, a tennis coach named Mark Tjia, and he lived in Florida – nearly a continent away. They had been nurturing a long-distance relationship for some time when she decided to take a leap of faith and move across the country so they could be together, simultaneously changing careers and beginning work in human resources. 

It was a multitude of changes converging at once, but Blythe-Tjia adapted, even after realizing that her husband’s line of work meant that he might need to move with little notice. After 6 years in Florida, his job took him to Texas Christian University, and finally to the head tennis coach position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Blythe-Tjia was delighted to find a job that was a good fit for her at UAB. 

As the Program Manager in charge of student recruitment for the Office for Diversity & Inclusion, Student Affairs, Blythe-Tjia travels to area schools and discusses UAB School of Medicine. She’s also responsible for helping develop strategy, and for building cooperative relationships with pipeline programs and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the Southeast. 

Her job, she says, is the favorite of her career: it serves as the perfect marriage of her desire to advocate for students, and her passion for helping the underserved. She enjoys facilitating the cultural competence of the UAB School of Medicine, and discussing the SOM’s richness of opportunity with potential students. 

She wants the students of the School of Medicine to know that the Office for Diversity & Inclusion is there for all of them. “Our job is to be an office for all students,” she said. “We’re nurturing an ongoing spirit of community and inclusivity.”

The office’s mission is in line with one of the primary life lessons Blythe-Tjia has harvested from her wide-ranging experience: “All people matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re well-educated or not, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re well-connected. All people matter. All people are important.”