Jessica Harris went on a five-year quest to earn a spot as a STARR Scholar so that she could go to college.

Jessica Harris in a lab in the Bott Building for Nursing Education and Research. Harris is a senior in the College of Nursing and the Honors College.

Facing A Challenge

Growing up, Jessica Harris knew that it was up to her to pay for college if she chose to pursue a degree. Her parents encouraged her to go to college with the understanding that she’d need to find the means on her own. Fortunately, Harris learned of a scholarship opportunity that might help her with her dilemma. But it would be a challenging goal to pursue. What might have seemed like an insurmountable task drove her on a five-year quest to earn her spot in the STARR Scholars program.

Harris first heard of the STARR Charitable Foundation Scholarship when a classmate of her older sister’s was chosen for the award. Harris was in seventh grade at the time, when few of her peers were thinking ahead to their college plans. Learning of the STARR Scholarship sparked a fire for Harris. From that point on, she wanted it. She says that, for her, earning the STARR Scholarship became the “gold standard” by which she would measure her success in high school. While not always forefront in her mind, it was there – prodding and encouraging her to do her best. She got one step closer to her dream of attending college when she was named a STARR Scholarship recipient for the 2012 incoming class.

Discovering Her Passion

Harris describes her high school experience as being “a big fish, in a small, small tank – not even a pond.” Growing up in Powell, Wyoming, she graduated with a class of one hundred students. The incoming freshmen class when she came to MSU was larger than her hometown’s population, and East Neighborhood’s population is higher than that of the county where she grew up. Moving to this new environment gave Harris the opportunity to learn new things about who she was and who she was meant to be.

Harris started out at MSU as a biomedical engineering major. The work was challenging, but she was a dedicated student. She worked hard in her classes and labs, and she developed a mentor-mentee relationship with a professor in the program. Though she enjoyed her studies, she didn’t feel that driving spark in her academic work. With the support of her mentor, she decided to take time over the summer to consider what she’d learned about herself through the experiences of her first year on campus. She explored other programs and when Harris returned in the fall she changed her major to nursing, where she has since thrived.

Reaching Higher

When you speak to Harris, you can tell she is passionate about her future career. Her eyes light up when she talks about her program, noting that what she loves about nursing is that she can focus on patient care rather than just a clinical diagnosis. She’s done rotation work at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, as well as at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. She speaks highly of the faculty in the college, noting that it is easy to learn from individuals who care so deeply about their work.

When she came to Michigan State as a freshman, she received some advice from Benjamin Brown, Senior Admissions Counselor and STARR Foundation Scholarship Coordinator, which she paraphrases as:

Each person’s arms can reach a different height. As long as you keep reaching, you’ll do great. Don’t compare how high you can reach to others. Do the best you can possibly do, and be competitive with yourself.

Harris has not stopped reaching toward her goals since she came to East Lansing, and has no plans to now that she’s nearing the end of her Spartan career.

“Opportunities that I’ve had at MSU have completely shaped me to become who I want to be,” she says. Her post-graduation plans are somewhat open. She’s weighing her options for different graduate-level programs within the field, but she’s definitely not finished with her academic pursuits. She’s currently applying to residency programs, including those at the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and the University of Colorado.

Home Away From Home

Four years since she came to campus and was stunned by its sheer size, Harris no longer finds the stark contrast between her hometown and her current surroundings so overwhelming. At times, it even feels small to her. She misses the wide-open spaces and the mountains of Wyoming. She often finds herself in the campus botanical gardens seeking an escape to nature, which she says is also a great reliever of stress.

Harris works with the Office of Admissions each summer. When she leads admissions tours, she says she always asks the high school students, “does this feel like home? Could you make a home here?” Because that’s what East Lansing has become to Harris.

It’s frightening to think of leaving her adopted home in December, when she graduates with her BSN in nursing. Wherever her future takes her, she says that her experiences at Michigan State have prepared her, and she recognizes the role the STARR Foundation played in that process.

Harris says that she owes the STARR Foundation donors more than they’ll ever know. “There are no words to describe the impact [they’ve] had on [my] life.”

To Harris, the STARR Charitable Foundation Scholarship was not just a scholarship. It didn’t just allow her to attend Michigan State University. It was the gift of time to discover her passion for helping others and to find the best route, for her, from the classroom to a career that will allow her to follow this passion and make her mark on the world.

This post is part of a series, Not Just A Scholarship, featuring various scholarship recipients at Michigan State University. You can also follow #NotJustAScholarship on our social media channels to learn more about these Spartans throughout the year.

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