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Commencement Speaker Navigates Master's Program, Adoption

Jennifer Henry Fielding came to UNLV to earn a degree to allow her to work in the field she loved, and found a support system while working through the adoption process.

People  |  Dec 13, 2016  |  By Jason Scavone
Jennifer Henry Fielding and her daughter Autumn

Jennifer Henry Fielding and her daughter Autumn. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

It's commencement week on campus! For details on the Dec. 17 ceremony and a link to the live stream of the event, visit the commencement website. And please join us on social media with #UNLVGrad to share commencement memories and congratulate all our new alumni.

There’s enough that comes with being a grad student — especially one who’s making a return to academia 10 years after finishing her bachelor’s — to keep a person busy. Adding “adopting a daughter” to the list is a whole other level of ambition.

Winter Commencement speaker Jennifer Henry Fielding graduated from Brigham Young University in 2004 with a bachelor’s in marriage, family and human development before entering the working world.

“I knew when I got my bachelor's that I wouldn't be able to work in the field without a master’s, but I was kind of burnt out after undergrad,” she said. “I had played college soccer, and I was feeling like I wanted a break.”Jennifer and Autumn

For the better part of 10 years, she worked in jobs unrelated to her degree before moving to Las Vegas in 2012. “I started working for a behavioral health agency and I kind of got back into the field again. I realized I really want to do therapy.”

It proved to be an irresistible pull. In August 2014, Fielding enrolled in the marriage and family therapy master’s program. Less than a year later, she started the process to adopt her daughter, Autumn Henry.

Autumn, who is Fielding’s cousin’s granddaughter, needed a home and Fielding’s uncle knew she wanted children. It was a natural fit, but the timing wouldn’t wait. The adoption process took more than a year but Autumn, now almost 3 years old, is fully Fielding’s. The upside to going to school and parenting at the same time is that the former frequently informs the latter.

“I was sitting in a lifespan development class that was taught by (visiting lecturer) Coreen Haym,” Fielding said. “I remember meeting with her after class like ‘Hey, is this normal? She's doing this.’ And I was at the clinic, one of my other professors came in and [asked] how it was going [with Autumn]. I felt like I was surrounded by this network of amazing resources … who cared and had the experience to be able to give me guidance that was based on research.”

Returning to school after nearly a decade can be daunting, but Fielding took to it with aplomb. She’s graduating with a 4.0 GPA and master’s degree that will allow her to fully engage with her field.

Fielding hopes to build her career in Utah or her native Washington State. Wherever she goes, she knows she will have learned what it takes to be a pro.

Nervous at first, thinking she might not be as educated as other students in the program or would be behind from the long layoff from school, Fielding quickly acclimated with the help of professors who were cognizant of what it was like for a student therapist to walk into a clinic for the first time and meet with clients.

“My undergrad was more about soccer and just getting classes done,” she said. “My grad school experience was, I wanted to be in class. I wanted to be learning. I could tell how passionate all of my professors were about it too. It just kind of rubbed off on me. I guess, naively, I didn't realize that I was going to school to become a professional and they presented themselves like that from the beginning. I wanted to match their level of professionalism and show ‘I'm in this too. I want to be like you.’”

Autumn is right there with her. When she’s getting ready for the day, she slides on a backpack and tells her mother, “I go to work.” If you’re hiring and need someone who’ll work for Go-Gurt,  consider Autumn. First, though, she has to watch her mother speak to the Class of 2016.

“I don't know if she really gets what's going on,” Fielding said. “But I'm sure she'll want to pull my tassel off.”