Kelly Jenks currently resides in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New Mexico State University. After completing the TAMS program in 2000, Jenks attended Cornell University where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Archaeology and Anthropology. She then went on to pursue a Master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona.
What brought you to the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS)?
My two closest friends from high school decided to apply, and because I learned about the program from them, I applied too. All three of us were accepted, which made it an easy decision to go.
What did you enjoy most about TAMS?
I loved the freedom of being on a college campus and the challenge of taking college classes. I worked a lot, but it never felt like busy work in the way that my old high school assignments often did. I also loved the friends that I made there and the time that I was able to spend with those friends. It’s been almost 20 years and I’m still close with a lot of the friends I made at TAMS.
How did your experience at the University of North Texas (UNT) and TAMS shape your career path?
It had a huge impact! If I hadn’t gone to TAMS, I wouldn’t have gone to Cornell University. I don’t think it would have even occurred to me that I could apply to an Ivy League, or that I could go to college in a state and region where I knew absolutely no one. Graduating from TAMS made me a ‘hot commodity,’ and Cornell offered me a research scholarship to entice me to attend. The research opportunities and mentorship I found at Cornell, in turn, led me to my current profession and helped me succeed.
What was the most valuable lesson – inside or outside the classroom – that you learned at UNT and TAMS?
I learned what I was capable of. My family wasn’t wealthy, and none of us were doctors or researchers. I was always good at school but I wasn’t the best, and I never really considered doing anything past a college degree. TAMS showed me what I could do, and what I liked to do. It changed the way I thought about myself.
If you earned a bachelor’s degree, what did you do in the year immediately after graduation?
I attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I was given a Presidential Research Scholarship, which meant that I could afford to attend school there and I had the support I needed to pursue research opportunities. I took my first class in dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) that spring, and I was invited to join the professor as a research assistant that summer. We spent 10 weeks driving around the Mediterranean, visiting different archaeological sites, historical structures, and forests and collecting tree ring samples for dating. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience.
Please share a memorable moment or experience from your time at UNT and TAMS.
I feel like I should be remembering some important scientific experiment or class assignment, but the first thing that comes to mind is the simple joy of hanging out with friends in the dorm rooms listening to good music. I was introduced to so many different kinds of music, so many movies, and so many new authors just because I was making new friends. I remember watching “Real Genius” for the first time there and joking about how it compared with TAMS. We did have some great classes and I remember those too, but mostly I remember spending time with friends.
How would you describe UNT, TAMS, and Denton?
I remember UNT as a school dominated by the arts, with great concerts and exhibits around all of the time. I used to study in the music building just to listen to the students practice because they were so good! TAMS was (forgive me) a safe space for smart kids to explore college life. We had enough freedom to figure out what we liked, but enough supervision to make sure we slept, ate, and finished our homework. Denton, when I was there, was a good college town. It was big enough without being too big, and it was an easy drive from major cities and airports. It had a great coffee shop and several good music stores within walking distance, which was about all I needed to be happy.
If you could go back and do it all again, would you still attend TAMS? What would you do differently, if anything, during your time as a student?
Yes, absolutely. I’m so grateful that I learned about TAMS from my friends, because if I hadn’t gone there, I don’t think I would be where I am now. The only thing I might have done differently is to take more “fun” classes during my final semester. My honors chemistry class (first semester of junior year) was pretty brutal, but I don’t regret taking it. I learned a lot about how to study that semester!
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
Hopefully I haven’t done it yet! I’ve developed and managed several large archaeological research projects, including a couple of field schools, and I’ve managed to get all the information I need without losing any students or volunteers to heat exhaustion or snakebites. (I work in the Southwest. These things are always a concern.) I’ve published my research in a variety of books and journals, which is always exciting. The thing I’m probably proudest of, though, is seeing students that I’ve trained go on to succeed in this profession. My students have come from diverse backgrounds—economically, geographically, racially, etc.—and many of them never thought they would be able to work in this field. I understand that because I used to think the same way. I like to think that I’ve helped them in the same way that TAMS helped me.
What advice/insight do you have for TAMS alumni and students interested in your field?
If you think you might like archaeology, give it a try! There are lots of active research projects all over the world happening all of the time, and we can always use extra hands. New people bring new insights and new questions, and just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean you can’t contribute in a meaningful way. Classes and books are a great way to learn about a particular period or place, but nothing compares with the hands-on experience of fieldwork and laboratory work.