Class of 2009
At 19 years old, with a 0.97 GPA, Jonathan Tennis ’09 failed out of college.
Thirteen years later, following a stint in the Army, he finished his degree at Eckerd. In the Army and during those interim years, he developed discipline, learned a new language (Russian), and deployed to Iraq. Today, he holds an Eckerd bachelor’s degree in American studies as well as graduate degrees in cybersecurity and creative writing (poetry).
“I just got swallowed up and lost,” he says of his original college experience at a big state school. “The Army was not something I had thought much about prior to joining, but I woke up and was just like, this will get me back on track.”
He is grateful for those early experiences that gave him an appreciation for the sacrifice and achievement of earning his degrees. Now, as a program manager at Microsoft, he wants to recognize Eckerd students and alumni who are also veterans with a scholarship and a veterans’ alumni affinity group.
The Beyond Thank You For Your Service Annual Scholarship came out of his own experience with the GI bill, which has very specific coverage requirements that can be limiting. He also thought of the common phrase he hears as a veteran—“Thank you for your service”—that, while well-intentioned and appreciated, he says can sometimes lack a true understanding of the veteran experience.
Jonathan never thought he would be in the position to fund a scholarship, but after a meeting with the Advancement Office in 2022, he realized that a corporate match from Microsoft meant he could more easily name a scholarship. He hopes that, eventually, others can contribute to endow the scholarship to support in perpetuity veterans and their family members who come to Eckerd as students.
“I feel privileged to be able to give back,” he says.
Jonathan’s own Eckerd journey started by happenstance. He was working in Tampa at Central Command (CENTCOM) when a colleague invited him to an info session on PEL, the Eckerd College Program for Experienced Learners, a now-discontinued night-class and weekends bachelor’s degree program geared toward older students with careers.
At the time, PEL had an information analysis program tailored to people like him who worked in the intelligence industry.
“What I remember most about Eckerd was the discipline it took,” he says.
He would work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., do homework, come to class from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., go home and do it all over again. He took additional Eckerd classes to take advantage of the liberal arts atmosphere, from one class about plays to another on detective fiction.
Despite his “nontraditional” student status, he also had the very traditional Eckerd experience of thought-provoking discussions with classmates who held different perspectives than his own.
Jonathan says while his worldview is still somewhat shaped by his time in the Army, the skills he gained at Eckerd contributed to expanding his horizons.
He has worked to continue to build on the conversations and community he found at Eckerd through founding a Veteran Alumni Network. The group meets via Teams video calls to bond over their shared experiences as Eckerd alumni and veterans. Jonathan finds his fellow veterans speak the same language—not necessarily of firing a weapon, or combat, but about the pain of seeing fellow service members lost to suicide or substance abuse, or the difficulty in adjusting to civilian life. The group is still adding veterans to its ranks as more alumni who have served are discovered.
Members also understand, he says, what it means to have a life-changing Eckerd education. Jonathan is forever grateful to Eckerd, and PEL, for giving him an opportunity to start over academically.
“Everybody you talk to who loves Eckerd has—I won’t say a spiritual experience—but this is meaningful, this is important, and here’s why,” he says.
Jonathan received an award from then-President Donald R. Eastman III at the 2009 Eckerd Commencement.