Through positions in law, research, entrepreneurialism and compliance, Jennifer Horn has always worked to help others achieve their goals.
When Jennifer Horn graduated from high school, she balked at the idea of coming to Texas Tech University.
"I went to high school in Cotton Center, Texas, and graduated in a class of 16," she explained. "When someone suggested that I go to Texas Tech, there was no way I was going to set foot on such a big campus."
To be fair, Texas Tech had more than 21,500 students on campus that fall. And for a farm girl from Hale County, a smaller school just felt a little more like home.
Little did she know then that she would end up at Texas Tech, first as a student and later as an employee who would impact the lives of students like herself.
"I think the most meaningful thing, really, is anytime you have a chance to do something to help people connect or help somebody get their feet on the ground and get off to a good start," Horn said. "That, to me, is probably the most worthwhile."
That may well be her legacy. Even as she retires today (July 19), she's not done yet.
At age 18, Horn left the farm for McMurry University in Abilene, and later West Texas A&M University in Canyon, where she earned her bachelor's degree in medical technology, biology and chemistry. She started working in medical laboratories in Burnet, Littlefield and Lubbock.
"When I first began working in clinical laboratories, medical technologists had a great deal of interaction with patients and hospital staff, which I enjoyed," Horn said. "When I began working in larger hospitals, and as hospitals grew, the laboratories became much more isolated, and the staff had little to no contact with patients. The patient contact was what I enjoyed the most, knowing you were part of the care team. I simply did not enjoy the work anymore."
So she did the most practical thing: she made a list of what she liked – challenges, problem solving, research and helping others – and investigated other career options.
"I felt like God was directing me to go to law school," she said. "I had never considered it, but decided to apply and see what happened. I took the law school admission test, did well and was offered a full scholarship to attend the Texas Tech School of Law. My husband and I decided that was too good of an offer to turn down."
So, in her mid-30s, with four children at home, she enrolled in law school. And to really challenge herself, she got a position as a research assistant in the Office of General Counsel – which provides legal services, advice and representation for the university – after her first year. In 1994, she graduated in the top quarter of her class.
Her plan was pretty basic: practice law in Olton, where her family lived, and spend more time with her children.
"Law school is so time-consuming that, right after law school, I really just planned on having a small practice and being present for the kids, for a change," she said. "My husband had been the main person getting them where they needed to go and so forth. So, for a short time, it was good just to do a small-town practice and be more flexible and available than I had been the three years before."
At the time, Lamb County only had two attorneys who were not related to the judge or the district attorney, so as soon as new attorneys were licensed to practice, they immediately started receiving cases.
"The day I got my law license, I got my first court appointment," Horn said. "There was no downtime."
Six years went by in a blur of civil, criminal and Child Protective Services cases, banking and real estate transactions. And then, out of the blue, she got a call from a law school friend who had been working in the Office of General Counsel.
"They knew I had worked here as a student, and they just let me know there was going to be a job coming open," she said. "It was a great place to work as a student, and I enjoyed it, so I knew that if I had a chance, I'd like to come back and do something like that."
Back to Texas Tech
In 2000, she began her new job as associate general counsel for the Texas Tech University System. Her role involved a little bit of everything, from advising administrators, faculty and staff and briefing administrators and the Board of Regents on legal issues, to handling issues with employment, real estate and construction.
"At the time, we had a really large building program going on, on campus – that was right when they finished the spirit arena and were building the English/Philosophy building, and there just seemed to be a lot of construction going on," she said. "I got to see what goes into planning buildings on campus, the engineers and architects and looking at the contracts, but also getting to sit in on the meetings where they're deciding what they're going to do, what kind of proposals they're going to accept and what designs they're going to go with. So, that was a really interesting time on campus."
In 2003, her family relocated to the Amarillo area for her husband's job.
"I was kind of dragged, kicking and screaming, away from Lubbock," she laughed.
She worked as a staff attorney for the Seventh District Court of Appeals in Amarillo and, once her husband's job returned the family to Lubbock, as a staff attorney for the Texas Department of Public Safety. While there, she learned something important about herself.
"I'm not cut out to be a prosecutor," she said. "I think I'm too sympathetic to some folks. That was a good experience, but just not the type of work that I really wanted do."
Back to Texas Tech, again
So, in fall 2006, she came full circle – she became a visiting professor in the School of Law.
"It was really strange the first time I went back to teach because I was teaching with people who had taught me, and they were still there –it was very intimidating," she said. "It takes a while to make that transition from student to colleague, but that was the only thing that seemed really strange to me: to be sitting down as a colleague with these people I had so far up on a pedestal."
She taught the first-year legal practice course, which includes basic legal skills, like research writing, negotiation, persuasion and mediation.
"They would get their first grades, and they would just be devastated – they'd always been good students, they get into law school, and then they get their first C, and they just think the world's going to end," she laughed.
Because the course lasts the first full year of law school, its design gave her an opportunity to get to know her students on a more personal level, to make connections and to really interact with them. It was her first experience with mentoring students – something she realized she enjoyed.
"I can look at some of those folks, and they have been out practicing law now for several years," Horn said. "To keep up with them and see that they're being successful is very rewarding, just to know that maybe you helped get them through when it would have been easy to quit; it's not so easy to stick it out and put the work in.
"I think convincing a lot of them that, 'If you're smart enough to get here, you're smart enough to finish – it's just a matter of work ethic and putting the work in,' and teaching them how to do that, that's a good way to spend your time."
After four years of teaching, however, she began to miss the hands-on, practical aspects of law. That's when she learned about an open position for a research contract analyst in the Office of Research Services, which would deal mostly with negotiating research contracts with sponsors. She applied and got the job.
While she was familiar with negotiation in general, the specifics of this position were new and different to her – and that was what she wanted.
"I get bored easily," she said. "I don't like routine; I enjoy changes, I enjoy challenges, and I like to kind of take on something and get it taken care of and then move on to another challenging type thing.
"In going to Research Services, I had to get familiar with the whole world of grants and proposals and the rules and things surrounding how you have to submit proposals. It's a very small world, and it's not something most people are going to know. When you're helping people submit grant proposals, you have to be aware of all these things the federal agencies require and industry restrictions on how you have to spend the money. That was something totally different than anything I'd ever done before."
Innovation and entrepreneurialism
After also serving as associate managing director of the office, in 2014, she moved from the Office of Research Services to a different role, still under the Office of the Vice President for Research, now called the Office of Research & Innovation. As director of translational research and entrepreneurialism, Horn was tasked with developing programs for the fledgling Innovation Hub at Research Park and establishing student entrepreneurial opportunities to support it.
"The part of it I liked the most was that you had faculty with terrific ideas that they maybe hadn't even thought of a commercial potential for – they're so focused on basic research that they don't always realize this is something that could be really useful, maybe in an area that they hadn't thought of," Horn said.
Connecting faculty mentors with students, who also had big ideas and entrepreneurial aspirations, was rewarding to her.
"It was a position where you didn't have to have the expertise, you just had to get the people who needed something with the people who knew how to do it," she explained. "Get them connected, then get the tools in place to get things going."
Because she was involved on the leading edge of Texas Tech's entrepreneurialism and innovation push, she says it's fun to look back now and see how much it's grown.
"I'm glad I got to be part of it at the beginning," she said. "I've been away from it just long enough to see where those students have gone and what they're doing now – working for Microsoft, starting their own companies, some of them are still around and active in things that are going on at the Innovation Hub.
"I think that's the rewarding part: just knowing I had some role in getting that started on the Texas Tech campus and getting the innovation idea rolling where we hadn't had a lot of that before."
After spending 14 months leading the entrepreneurial program, Horn has been the managing director of export and security compliance since July 2017. Her current role involves a lot of logistics and planning, putting checks in place so most people don't have to actively think about whether they're complying with regulations.
"The goal is to try to find the best way to do what we are required to do under the law but to do it in a way that supports the faculty and the professors, and make it the least burdensome we can," she said.
The most continuous thread throughout her roles on campus seems to be creating connections. After her time teaching at the law school showed her how much she likes helping students, Horn became involved with the Lauro Cavazos & Ophelia Powell-Malone Mentoring Program, better known as Mentor Tech.
"I know what it's like for people from small towns or first-generation college students to think about setting foot on a campus this size; it's very intimidating," she said. "My mother started college when I was a sophomore in high school, and my dad had never gone to college, so we didn't have a lot of advice on what you do when you go to school; you had to figure it out on your own. When I heard about Mentor Tech, I thought, 'I can relate to that.' I really wanted to do something that would help, especially first-generation college students, because I just think there's such a need for that."
While she's enjoyed working with students through Mentor Tech and her entrepreneurialism role, Horn said she especially liked working with law school students. That's why she's coming back, after her official retirement, to teach as an adjunct for one more year.
"I always felt like the law school was competitive enough that they didn't really admit people unless they were capable of succeeding," Horn said. "A lot of what the first-year students go through is just convincing them, 'You are capable of doing this.' Once they get that in their heads, they do pretty well. But it's a really challenging environment.
"Some people just don't like it, and if you don't like it and want to quit, that's fine. But I hate to see somebody invest even a semester and then quit because they think they can't do it."
As she comes to the end of her career, Horn is able to easily say – without hesitation – what she would change.
"I would have never left when we moved away from Lubbock," she said. "I would have told my husband, 'No, we're not going anywhere.' In the period of time when I was away from Texas Tech, before I came back, I really missed it. I don't think I've ever been as happy as when I was working on campus.
"Working on campus is something special. It's an environment you don't find in many places: the mix of people, the mix of students and faculty and staff, it's just such a great place to work, and there are always opportunities. Obviously, if you want to do something different, you don't have to go somewhere else; just keep your eyes open and wait for something to come around."
For a farm girl who graduated in a high school class of 16, she says Texas Tech has presented her a whole world of opportunities.
"I haven't traveled around the world, but you feel like, in a way, the world kind of comes to you, when you work here," she said. "The chance you have to get to know people from all over, is pretty special."