It doesn’t take much to realize that life never fully goes as planned, but staying positive during unwelcome change is a skill you can learn.
Just ask recent UNLV graduate Ben Jantzen, 56. His life has been rerouted a few times, starting with the loss of close family and later after a devastating accident.
From Kansas to Vegas
Jantzen grew up in Haysville, Kansas, just south of Wichita and home to only 11,000 people today. Living in a small town always left him wondering what else was out there, but his curiosity never went far until his brother passed away in a car accident when Jantzen was only 18. His mother passed away four years later, and his father four years after that.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be more to life than Kansas’” Jantzen said.
So he packed his bags for Chicago and made it his goal to become a flight attendant. As he quickly learned, it’s highly competitive and often takes months or even years to enter the field. He applied to multiple airlines before finally finding his home airline and his dream of traveling the world finally became reality. Spending one week in Rio De Janeiro and Berlin the next — a new adventure was always around the corner.
“Follow your dreams and don’t give up. No matter how many times you get the door shut in your face, keep trying,” he advises.
In 1997, he made Las Vegas his home base as he continued to explore the world as a flight attendant. When he wasn’t working in the sky, he was cruising the desert in his dream car — a red 1989 Jeep Wrangler.
Jantzen took a trip back to Chicago to visit some friends nearly a decade after moving to Vegas. The group of friends were jumping on a trampoline and taking turns to show off their best flips. He decided to go for a backflip that he had landed many times before, so without second-guessing himself, he went for it.
But this time was different. He didn’t quite turn his body enough and he landed on his head, breaking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae.
Injury to vertebrae c1-c8 — where the high-cervical nerves are — results in the most severe level of spinal cord injuries. Jantzen was paralyzed from the neck down.
He spent the next eight years of his life in a Las Vegas nursing home. The first two years were, he said, dark and silent. Previously known as someone eager to explore life while singing and dancing to the radio turned up just a little too loud, he was now taking refuge in his room alone with the music turned off.
After two years of watching Jantzen live in frustration, his friends got together to intervene. They felt it was time to get the personality they all knew and loved back, and it was time to help get him back there.
“So I thought, ‘Well, what could I do?’” Jantzen remembers.
Next door from his nursing home was the College of Southern Nevada. There, Joanna Jezierska, a disability specialist and advisor, helped him start answering that question.
Adjusting to college brought a new set of challenges, but leaving his comfort zone paid off when he graduated with his associate’s degree in general studies.
In 2012, Janzten received the MGM Mirage-Hites Educational Fund Scholarship to continue his education and attend UNLV. And UNLV’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) helped him apply for and receive the Neilsen Foundation Scholarship Program for students with spinal cord injuries.
Here he discovered a deeper love for history. And as it happened, Jazierska transferred to UNLV not long after Jantzen did. She became a mentor for Jantzen and helped him navigate college throughout the rest of his time as an undergraduate.
In December 2020, he graduated with a bachelor of arts in history with magna cum laude honors.
And again he asked himself, “Where do I go from here?”
The answer, he said, had to be in helping others.
“Whether it’s civil, LGBT+, or even environmental rights, I can still help others through law.”
So now he’s ready to chase his newest adventure: the law school application process and defying the image of a traditional law student.
“There’s always a road to take to try and better yourself. The most important thing, whether you’re in my position or not, is to keep a positive attitude. Whatever you give out to the universe is what will come back to you.”
Jantzen plays his music loud again, explores the Nevada hills in the passenger seat of his 1989 Wrangler, and is now studying for the LSAT.