Who gets the first hug from graduates of Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism after they receive their diplomas?
Sharon Horton Jones.
The longtime academic adviser has been called a hero to thousands of students, a mother figure with an open heart and open door.
For those qualities and for her contributions to the school’s success, Jones received a 2019 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. As director of student services and assessment, Jones has advised students on their path to graduation since 1983. She began working at Carolina in 1971.
After graduating from Pittsboro’s Northern High School, Jones was set to enroll at North Carolina Central University, but instead briefly attended community college. Not happy there, she began a job search. She found one at Carolina as administrative assistant in the College of Arts & Sciences, processing student’s academic records and performing degree audits. Nine years later, she joined the School of Dentistry. In 1983, she jumped to University Housing and had worked there for six weeks when her phone rang.
‘Heard some great things about you’
Richard Cole, then the dean of the School of Journalism, was on the line and looking for an academic adviser. “He said, ‘I’ve heard some great things about you, and I think you would be perfect for this job,’” Jones remembers. After some negotiation,
she accepted the offer.
With a new job, she also began a family with husband Tyree. Months after the birth of a daughter, Katrina, Tyree died. Twelve years later Jones remarried, gaining a stepdaughter, stepson and giving birth to two more sons.
By that time, her student family also had grown as they responded to her motherly advice. Plus, she was thriving in a professional setting in which she now manages a three-person office.
“Students are the main reason I’m still here,” Jones said. “They are my babies, and I tell them I am their mom away from home. I know sometimes when they walk into my office that we’re not going to talk about academics, and they sit there, and they say, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe I just told you all that.’”
Cole, now dean emeritus, confirmed as much in his nomination letter. “Students have been able to count on her for academic advice, moral support, counsel and consolation. She has shown them their best curricular paths, and I don’t mean just which courses are required and when to take them. She interviews them, discovers their interests and guides them to achieve their goals in the most meaningful way. At Commencement, they stop their walk across the stage to hug her, showing the crowd of thousands how much she means to them.”
Work ethic and refining processes
For a while, she advised graduate and undergraduate students, sometimes working until 7 or 8 p.m. “My own kids told me that they used to say, ‘I wonder what time Mom will come home tonight?’ Then I’d get home and cook dinner and the whole nine yards.” When class registration was a paper-heavy process, she and co-workers could be at the school as late as 2 a.m.
She’s known for that kind of work ethic and for refining and streamlining processes. “The school is bigger than it’s ever been,” said Charlie Tuggle, senior associate dean, with whom Jones sets the school’s class schedule. “We’ve had lots of changes. Sharon rolls with them, tries new things and suggests ways to improve them.”
Jones said that, despite not having a college degree, she has always been supplied with the internal strength needed to succeed. And her experience more than equals a degree at this point. “I am content with what I’ve been able to do,” she said.
An angel who made a difference
Much of what she’s done begins when students first meet her, sometimes with parents in tow on a tour. Parents notice things, even in Jones’ office overflowing with gifts from students, stuffed animals, plants and cards. One gift stands out. An angel.
A crystal figurine kneeling in front of an inscription: “You are an angel who made a difference in the lives of those you’ve touched.” A father who noticed the angel asked Jones to take care of his daughter. They discussed a mutual Christian faith that, for Jones, is her life’s foundation.
She doesn’t preach her faith; she exudes it while paying attention to students’ progress and serving as their sounding board.
“You can’t possibly separate the two — her personal life and her professional life are inextricably intertwined,” Tuggle said. “Students seek her out. I call her the school’s best listener. Sometimes it’s personal like a death in the family, or they’re struggling in a class; she’s a calming influence and they say they always feel better after talking with her.”
Lifting the burden
Jones tells students that if they are not handling their academics well, she will call them in. “Sometimes they want to talk to the professors, but they don’t know how. So, after they talk with me, it’s like, ‘Wow, I feel so much better. I don’t feel the weight anymore.’”
Sharon Nunn, a 2017 graduate, saw that burden-lifting effect. “Ms. Jones takes her time with every student who visits her for schedule and graduation planning, giving them undivided attention, encouragement and suggestions,” Nunn said. “She is the reason many students have been able to graduate under extenuating circumstances and why they feel secure in their place at Carolina. I can’t imagine the number of lives Ms. Jones has touched.”
Aside from academic worries, Jones is noticing more students with depression and anxiety. She is careful to point, sometimes walk, students to an appropriate resource such as Counseling and Psychological Services. Sometimes, she said, just a hug makes students feel and do better.
“I feel so good to know that by the end of the day I have made a difference in somebody’s life,” she said.
Her influence has extended over 47 years. “Students, faculty, and even deans have come and gone; the school moved locations; its name and curriculum changed, but Sharon has been a constant,” said Jan Yopp, the school’s Walter Spearman Distinguished Professor.
“I am so honored,” Jones said. “There is a time and a season for everything, and this was my season. It is never too late for you to receive rewards right here on Earth.”