Jonathan Romero was surprised when Thomas Nelson President Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon asked him to serve as the keynote speaker for the College's 2022 commencement.
“Why me?” was his first thought.
“Faculty doesn’t know who I am. Neither do the students,” said Romero, who is a Thomas Nelson graduate and has served on the College Board since 2018 representing the City of Hampton. “I’m just surprised that anybody would know who I am.”
Brannon said people are familiar with Romero even if he prefers to work behind the scenes. Despite his modesty, Brannon calls him a role model.
“His story is similar to our students’,” she said.
Romero, who grew up in Georgia and was a military dependent, tried college when he was young.
“It wasn’t a good fit,” he said. “Then I lived my life.”
There was something gnawing at him, though. He was in his 40s, living in Poquoson, but wanted to go back to school. He was familiar with Thomas Nelson.
“I know the role of community colleges, and I believe in them,” he said.
This time, it was a better fit, despite him working full time.
“(Thomas Nelson) a lot more flexible, a lot more nimble to be able to address the needs of not only the young folks, but the adult learners also,” he said.
He earned his associate degree in nursing in 2011, but his educational journey was just beginning. He added a bachelor’s in nursing from Fort Hays State University, followed by a master’s in nursing from Walden University. In May 2021, he earned his doctoral degree in nursing from Regis College.
Brannon said that makes him an excellent choice as a commencement speaker.
“Dr. Romero completed his doctorate degree during the pandemic,” she said. “He was just like our students: taking classes virtually, trying to navigate a pandemic. I think that’s just extraordinary.”
Romero has been working on his speech. He has four versions and is fairly sure he knows which one he will use.
“I just want to be relatable to the students,” he said. “I was an adult learner when I came back to Thomas Nelson.”
While the average age of Thomas Nelson’s student population is 26, he knows plenty of younger graduates will also be in the in the audience. He hopes they also can relate to his journey, and even use it as inspiration.
He had been in the health field for many years, first as a surgical technician and then as a surgical assistant. He said enrolling in nursing school was the next logical step.
“I wasn’t getting that holistic view of the body, and the disease,” he said of being a technician.
Nursing offers him that, as well as the ability to help others. He also has a natural curiosity about understanding the body as a whole.
“As a technician, you learn your specific role, and that was very interesting,” he said.
He wanted more, to impart that knowledge in a way students will understand.
“That’s why I went into nursing education,” he said.
He spent four years teaching at Hampton University, and the past two semesters at Old Dominion University. He finds it gratifying to take something complex and simplify it for students to understand.
“All the other stuff that I do pales in comparison,” he said.
Romero’s association with the College didn’t end upon graduation. It has gotten only stronger. He has established an annual nursing scholarship, and while he says it’s not a lot of money, the message behind it is just as important. He wants the recipients to know people are rooting for them.
“I call it a financial hug, just to let you know you’re going in the right direction,” he said
Having traveled the same path, he knows how stressful nursing school is, and how stressful the process is of just getting into nursing school.
That impressed Brannon, especially since Romero’s first donation came before he graduated.
“It’s a powerful testament to how he believes Thomas Nelson helped changed his life,” she said.
His position on the College Board isn’t just something he wanted, it was something he lobbied for, forming relationships with city council members and other community leaders.
“I just believe that if anybody just does a little bit, nobody has to carry the load,” he said. “I’m at the age now … why not me? It’s my turn.”
He also acknowledged it’s a way to say “thank you” to those who helped him.
“There are people who went ahead of me that made Thomas Nelson what it is so I could go,” he said. “I owe it to the people coming up behind me to lend my expertise, or whatever I can, even if it’s grunt work.”
Romero has been married nearly 11 years and has three children: ages 28, 10 and 4. In his free time, he enjoys sailing. He has made trips to Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. On his bucket list is a trip to Bermuda.
Professionally, though, he has no thoughts of wandering.
“I just want to become better at what I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t want to advance. I don’t want to become dean or assistant dean. I want ODU to be my last job, and I want to become a better professor.”
Recalling that phone call from Brannon, he still can’t believe he was chosen.
“I’m blown away by it,” he said, adding he didn’t think anyone was paying attention. “I’m just so shocked that I was considered. I’m humbled that they would think enough of me to choose me.”
Brannon said the way he goes about his day, as a board member, as a professor, and as a family member, is inspiring.
“He is just doing his diligent good work and not looking for praise and recognition,” she said.
People have noticed.
“Everyone is paying attention,” she said.