It was a Thanksgiving moment that Vonda Jump Norman is still grateful for nearly 27 years later.
“Somebody asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’” recalls Jump Norman, an assistant professor of social work in the Department of Social work, Sociology and Anthropology at Utah State University. “And all of a sudden, it became clear what I wanted to do.”
It wasn’t like Jump Norman didn’t have direction in her life at the time, she was already highly successful academically. A native of Covington, Kentucky, Jump Norman grew up just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati and attended Holmes High School. She says she didn’t realize it at the time, but her inner-city school had “a reputation for being a tough place.”
“I didn’t think it was that hard when I was there,” Jump Norman says. “I loved it, and I’m super grateful for what I got.”
Academic and athletic success at Holmes High led to a scholarship at Centre College, a private liberal arts college located in the central Kentucky town of Danville. While there, Jump Norman ran cross country and track on her way to completing bachelor’s degrees in psychology and French in 1988.
From there, Jump Norman went on to the University of Kentucky in Lexington and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology in 1991. And at the time of her family’s Thanksgiving gathering in ’93, she was working for the school district she had attended while growing up in Covington. Jump Norman’s epiphany during that holiday led to “kind of a fluke that I got to Utah.”
“I decided that I wanted to do what I could to prevent child abuse and neglect,” Jump Norman says. “And I talked to this person who is a leader in the field of child abuse and neglect, and I asked him where I should go. And he said, ‘Go to Utah State.’ So, I picked up my family and moved.
“… That’s why I came to Utah to get my Ph.D,” she adds. “And I fell in love with the mountains and never left.”
Twenty-six years after she first came to Cache Valley, Jump Norman is on the other side of that equation – that is trying to provide some good advice of her own. And because she’s found success in that realm, Jump Norman was awarded USU’s 2020 Undergraduate Faculty Mentor of the Year Award this spring.
“I’m sure that all of those other people that were nominated – as well as so many more people on our campuses, Logan and statewide – were just as deserving of this award that I received this year,” Jump Norman says. “I’m really happy that I got it, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t 100 other people who aren’t just as deserving.”
Jump Norman completed her doctorate at Utah State in December 1998, writing a dissertation entitled “Effects of Infants Massage on Aspects of the Parent-child Relationship: An Experimental Manipulation.”
“My focus was, is and always will be parent-child relationships,” she says. “Those early foundations are really pivotal for our entire lives actually. And so the work I work I do is trying to promote the connection between parents and their babies because that lasts forever and has a huge impact.”
Motivated by that passion, Jump Norman spent 18 years as a research scientist in the Research and Evaluation Division of USU’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, a role that included making trips to orphanages in places like India, Russia and Ecuador, while also visiting Haiti in 2003 and 2014 – before and after the devastating earthquake in 2010.
Jump Norman also served as the principal investigator for a U.S. Department of Defense project focused on family relationships involving members of the military who had been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“There’s a lot of trauma in a military family, and dealing with what our military members see on a daily basis in wartime situations, in particular,” Jump Norman explains. “And that comes back to impact families. So, how do we work with families to kind of get past some of that and heal the trauma?”
But in August 2016, Jump Norman suddenly steered her career in a new direction by taking a position as an assistant professor teaching social work at USU’s Statewide Campus in Brigham City.
“It was a wonderful year,” she says with a smile. “I turned 50, changed my job and became a grandma all in the same year. But there has been a huge learning curve the last four years being a faculty member for social work.”
Jump Norman, who also serves as the Trauma Resiliency Project Director for The Family Place in Cache Valley, was commuting over to Brigham City a couple of days a week prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also teaching some classes online to students around the entire state. She primarily works with juniors and seniors, helping them to create and write research proposals that can then be implemented in community agencies involved with social work.
“That’s the thing that I think is really important is that it’s real-life, and the agencies are in our students’ communities,” Jump Norman says. “They’ll go in and talk about what their needs are, and the student develops a relationship with an agency. And then some of our students will go to that agency for their practicum afterwards.”
Many of Jump Norman’s pupils are “non-traditional” students who might be older and are trying to complete a degree while working another job and taking care of a family. Or they might be younger students that have other challenges arise in their life, and find it a struggle to keep up with everything.
Jump Norman says a big part of mentoring is helping students realize that everyone struggles at one time or another, and that it’s alright to ask for help. She shares the story of one student who was “at the end of her rope” thanks to some challenges in her life, and she was planning on dropping out of the program until going on a long walk with Jump Norman.
“She couldn’t see her way through it, but we were able to talk and kind of break down what she needed to happen for her to succeed,” Jump Norman recalls. “She’s a stellar student. One of those top students when you look at her potential in the field. She’s going to make such a difference, but sometimes there’s just things that happen in our lives that make it really hard.
“I can’t say she’s actually 100 percent finished yet because she got behind, but she is going to be finishing up this semester.” Jump Norman adds. “Sometimes you just need to be there when students say, ‘I just can’t do this.’ They need somebody that believes in them to say, ‘You know what, it’s going to be hard, but you can do it.’”