As Jehnell Linkins begins her workday at the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) each morning, she consciously chooses to put her own problems behind her and focus on service. “I leave anything I’m struggling with within the car because our students need me to be there for them,” she said.
Now, the 1983 CSM alumna and longtime employee have been honored for her tireless work on behalf of students and the community with the college’s inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award. The award is a new way for the college to honor alumni who have distinguished themselves through professional achievements, service to the community, or service to CSM.
“Jehnell truly has been a terrific advocate for CSM and for our students, and that’s what community college is all about,” said Michael Bellis, CSM’s assistant director of alumni and annual giving. “She has given her amazing talents back to the college and is a passionate advocate for our learners.”
Linkins, a life-long resident of Bryans Road, first arrived on CSM’s campus more than 40 years ago. While attending Henry E. Lackey High School, she had dreamed of attending the University of Maryland, College Park. Still, she was discouraged from applying by her guidance counselor because of her race. At CSM, she found the support she needed, and after earning her associate’s at CSM, she made it to College Park, graduating with her B.S. in human ecology in 1987. Her husband and children have all attended CSM, the University of Maryland, and College Park.
When Linkins made her way back to CSM 18 years ago – this time as an employee – she was determined to give back the same support she had received while on campus.
“I want to be the person I had helping me when I was a student,” she said, noting that her own CSM advisor at the time, now-Maryland State Delegate Edith Patterson (with Linkins, pictured right), helped her realize that she could achieve her goals.
Today, Linkins is the pre-engineering program coordinator at CSM and an adjunct faculty member. But her job title is only the tip of the iceberg. Linkins has been known to buy groceries for hungry students. In fact, she said she takes great pride in the fact that she and her colleague CSM Chief of Staff Larisa Pfeiffer worked hard to establish the Hawk Feeder program more than five years ago to help students experiencing food insecurities. Their efforts grew to full-service food pantries being established on three campuses.
“Larisa and I used to offer free food to our students out of our offices,” Linkins shared. “It is how we came to realize just how many students were coming to classes, really hungry.”
Linkins also helps students find appropriate clothing for interviews, helps students and their families fill out college applications to transfer to four-year universities, and even hosts an impromptu etiquette lesson to teach students about behavior during business dinners.
“She has been so instrumental in so many lives that it can be a challenge for her to walk from her car to her office without being stopped by a grateful student,” said Bellis.
Linkins said she has an especially strong interest in increasing the number of underrepresented populations entering STEM careers. She sponsored the “Engineer Like a Girl” summer program for high school students at the Leonardtown Campus and co-founded CSM’s Society of Women Engineers Club. Linkins also led the effort to charter a new chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers at CSM in 2021.
“Jehnell was the first alum who came to mind when I read about the award,” said Toni Kruszka, CSM’s donor relations, and special events manager, who nominated Linkins for the award. “She demonstrates an extraordinary commitment to CSM and the community – often bridging the gap between the two. She makes Southern Maryland a better place, and CSM is fortunate to have her as an advocate and employee.”
Linkins often takes students into the community for service activities. She coordinated the CSM Engineering Club’s visit to the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department, the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, the La Plata Volunteer Fire Department, and the La Plata Police Department, where they thanked the first responders for their service by providing breakfast and donating to their Toys for Tots drive. She also worked with the CSM Engineering Club to provide activities so that Girl Scout Troop 196 of Bryans Road could earn their Robotics Badge in Mechanical Engineering.
“It is important that our students learn to give back to their communities and the importance of networking,” shared Linkins. “When you give, you get it back tenfold.”
Outside of CSM, Linkins’ community service efforts are far-reaching. She created the nonprofit organization Crohn’s Glitter and Girls, Inc. to raise awareness of the disease that she suffers from through education and outreach. Through this nonprofit, she recently established the “Crohn’s Glitter & Girls” Scholarship at CSM for students whose lives are affected by the disease. She is also the past president of The Southern Maryland Chapter of The Links Incorporated, a group of professional women of African American descent who provide scholarships and fund activities for the betterment of the community.
“Your service and what you give to others is like your rent for being here on earth,” Linkins said. “I suffer every day with my Crohn’s, but the truth is that when you give to others, you feel better, and when you do what you truly love, you’re not exhausted.”
Linkins received the Distinguished Alumni Award during the commencement ceremony on May 13.
Bellis said that he looks forward to growing the award, and a cohort of winners, in the coming years. Anyone in the community can nominate alumni, and the alumni steering committee chooses the winning candidate. Nominations for next year’s award will open later this year.
“We have 30,000 alumni, the vast majority of whom are living in Southern Maryland,” he said. “Many of them are terrific assets to the community, and we wanted a way to formally recognize some of those people for their work.”
As for being the first Distinguished Alumni Award winner, Linkins had one thing to say – and that was after a very long pause: “For the first time in my life, something has rendered me speechless!”