[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]
Cool, perky and energetic were all words that Jill Villasana’s ninth-grade students used to describe her.
And cool is a word Villasana uses to describe a James Madison Foundation Fellowship she recently received. The fellowship, awarded annually to one person from each state, will pay up to $24,000 of Villasana’s educational fees as she pursues a master’s degree in social studies.
Villasana, a lifelong Columbian, has been a ninth-grade government and social studies teacher at Jefferson Junior High School since she graduated from MU in 2001. At age 24, the 5-foot-2 teacher could have been mistaken for a student as she joined her class at their desks recently to listen to presentations on World War II.
“She’s always energetic and makes even the boring stuff interesting because she teaches it with energy,” Sara Erbschloe said of her teacher.
Villasana never planned to be a teacher. She started at MU as a journalism major but discovered in her junior year that journalism wasn’t for her. At the same time, Villasana realized how much she loved her job as a Residential Life staff member.
“I had to work with people,” said Villasana, explaining her switch to an education major. As for choosing government and social studies, Villasana said she wasn’t good enough at math or science to teach those topics. And she liked history.
Villasana did her student-teaching at her former high school, Hickman, under her former social studies teacher. Originally, she said she wanted to teach in a high school setting, but after student teaching she realized there wasn’t enough of an age difference between her and the students. Villasana was 21 when she graduated.
“I really do love being (at Jefferson), and I really do love working with ninth-graders,” she said.
Villasana’s students seem to love working with her as much as she does with them. “Most teachers are dead and they’ll just stand up at the board for hours, but she seems more into it,” said Henry Houck Jr.
Villasana said she never expected to win the James Madison Foundation Fellowship. When she applied last year, she was turned down but told to try again.
“So I thought, ‘You know what, this is $24,000,’” Villasana said. “‘I have got to do this again.’”
When Villasana explained to her aunt — who Villasana describes as the academically oriented one in the family — that she was applying for the fellowship again, her aunt’s first question was how many people are awarded each year. After hearing that only one person per state received the award, Villasana’s aunt congratulated her for trying and wished her luck.
Later, that aunt asked Villasana’s father, “So, does Jill have a back-up plan?”
Luckily, Villasana will not have to switch to a backup. She plans to attend school part time in pursuit of her master’s degree while continuing to teach.
As part of her fellowship, Villasana will spend four weeks next summer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to study the foundations of American constitutionalism.
Villasana says her favorite thing about teaching at Jefferson Junior High is the community. “The interaction between the students and the teachers,” she said, “is really phenomenal.”