Volunteering Fills His Cup
Story by LISA ANDERSON
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Raised in Sarasota, Florida, R.J. Jenkins has spent the last five years in Ocala, volunteering and becoming a champion of the city. “In full disclosure, I had come from some of the most liberal places on the planet. So, I was not convinced when I came to Ocala that I was going to be able to find people. What has been very cool is that I have found my people, but they are of all political persuasions. So, that’s been very eye-opening for me. I’m forced to rethink some of my preconceived notions about what a place is like or what a group of people might be like,” he admits. “I really, really like it here. I have met so many wonderful people.”
The Order of Things
R.J. is currently the Executive Committee President for the Marion Literacy Council, the Board of Directors President at the Reilly Arts Center, a founder of the Reilly’s Associate Board, and a strong supporter and volunteer for many other Ocala-based non-profit organizations, but before his love for this city began, R.J. threw himself into his academics.
“My home life wasn’t whimsical. I had a very broken childhood in some ways. Lots and lots of good memories peppered through what was actually a pretty difficult childhood.”
There were harder issues happening in his home—from substance abuse to divorce—but school was a place he could take refuge. Rules and praise for following the rules became very therapeutic, and they set in motion a passion for reading and teaching. “I’ve always been verbal. I was always a sucker for authority. My brother chafed against authority, and I was cuddled up to [it]. I always wanted to please. I always admired my teachers. Books about an ordered universe were [also] very therapeutic.”
His love of learning is evident through his academic credentials: A bachelor’s degree in English and Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University (New York City, New York) and a master’s degree in English from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England). He went on to do doctoral work in 19th-century British Literature at Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts), but it was a research trip to Kenya and a scary bout of malaria between his sophomore and junior years at Columbia that caused R.J. to really focus on his passion for English.
Follow R.J.’s Story
This story continues through our Social Media Channels on Instagram and Facebook every Wednesday in September. Be sure to follow us @localamag to find out about R.J.’s transformative trip to Cambridge, England. #localafollowme
Posted on Instagram and Facebook, September 8, 2021
(FOLLOW ME 1 OF 4) “Moving to London was pretty wild, truthfully. It was a place that occupied a lot of space in my imagination. I read Pride & Prejudice as a nine-year-old boy. So, I’ve imagined these spaces my whole life. Going there to live was pretty crazy. London is London, but Cambridge, which is a 45-minute train ride away, is like stepping into another time—especially for an American.”
Posted on Instagram and Facebook, September 15, 2021
“The mode of instruction was very exciting, because, in undergraduate school at American universities, you can hide. Even if you do very well, you can hide. You can do masterfully in undergraduate and almost never have a conversation with a professor, if you really want to do it that way. You can’t hide at Cambridge [University] because your primary mode of instruction is conversation.”
Posted on Instagram and Facebook, September 22, 2021
“I didn’t realize it, but my thinking was actually very undisciplined coming out of undergraduate school. I did all the things I was supposed to do. I did them well. I was friendly and interested in my professors. They love that, and so I excelled. Columbia [University] changed my life, but the program at Cambridge really forced me to take accountability for my thinking. It was the largest project I’d ever done. It was a several hundred-page master’s thesis.”
Posted on Instagram and Facebook, September 29, 2021
“The final piece of it, truly, which is more personal, is that I came out for the first time, largely because I was so far away that it felt like I could. I felt truly safe to do that. [Cambridge, England] will always be the place where I was able, for the very first time, to live my truth. So, despite the sort of intellectual and academic transformation, it represents this other kind of transformation. They all sort of happened at the same time. That was very cool for me.”
R.J. returned to the United States, and later met his partner Todd while they were both attending Harvard. The couple eventually moved to New York City, but Todd wished to return to Ocala. Enjoying his new job as dean of students for Columbia University, R.J. remained in New York for two years, but the couple kept up a long-distance relationship.