Features | By Coral James O’Connor

Dr Jessica Jones Nielsen: “It is not the time to retreat, but the time to extend ourselves”


City’s Extraordinary Woman 2022, Reader in the Department of Psychology and Assistant Vice-President (EDI) Jessica Jones Nielsen speaks as a leader with a higher calling, to teach and mentor in the belief that every student and member of staff has the potential to achieve and succeed.


When you speak to Dr Jessica Jones Nielsen, the first thing you hear is the American accent softened by time spent in the UK, but the second thing you hear is a deep commitment to care. There is a warmth in the way she speaks and the way that she is, and in education, care is not always evident. In Dr Jones Nielsen’s case, it is there in abundance. Being an educator was not what she first thought of for a career, becoming a vet was in her sights as a child growing up in Florida.


“I was such an animal lover, I always felt that I connected to animals in perceiving their emotions and wanting to care for them but that evolved quite quickly into wanting to go into medicine and into helping others.”


Helping others is at the root of what Dr Jones Nielsen calls “service”, it is key to the work she does whether that be as a module leader in the Department of Psychology or in her institutional role at City as the Assistant Vice-President (EDI), her work is deeply rooted in what can only be described as a commitment to the service of others or a servant leadership style.


It was in the embrace of her family that the need to serve as a leader was born. Her grandfather, grandmother, aunts, and uncles were pastors in their local church, so for her it felt intuitive to continue that call to service. She says: “I knew quickly I did not want to go through the church, but it was more of, well, how can I help society more broadly? I always saw that the function of creating a better society was partly the church’s responsibility, but also that there were other aspects to supporting society through education and counselling that I felt were just as valuable.”


Leadership in the church would not be the avenue for Dr Jones Nielsen, but she would take that inspiration she gained in seeing her family’s commitment to their congregation and community and use it as a guide towards more educational matters. She was moving towards what she called the ‘educational model in helping and supporting others and society’.

Dr Jessica Jones Nielsen on the first floor of College Building where the Extraordinary Woman wall is located.

Dr Jones Nielsen’s move into education as a lecturer came after a stint as a post-doc researcher at Imperial College London. In 2013, she would find herself at City, applying that ‘service-led’ approach to her dual role now as a Reader in Psychology and Vice-President (EDI). It was not an inevitable career path for her in those early days at school. “I am the first on both sides of my family to go to university. I had a number of mentors along the way who saw and nurtured the potential in me.” It was in high school that she says the “keen eye” of people from all cultural and racial backgrounds really started to “nurture and support” her into her next steps. This led to a committed move into her studies that enabled the career she now has in education.


“I always say that mentorship is so fundamental to an individual and collective success in terms of motivating a sense of belonging”. She believes that if she had not had that mentorship and seen her mentors in positions of power, particularly successful Black mentors, she would not have been able to visualise a place for herself in academia. It was seeing that that made her realise she was “just as deserving as anyone else to assume these types of roles and positions.” It is because of this that Dr Jones Nielsen is committed, indeed, it is a conviction to mentor.It is a form of giving something back and inspiring others arguing that she always leaves the door open to have those conversations with budding academics from undergraduate students and up, to speak to them about their next steps. “Often times what they have told me is that I am the first black teacher they have had in their entire educational experience and the first woman of colour that has taught them in a university senior role.”


It is Dr Jones Nielsen’s belief that her role in education is about helping to shape the future of those she teaches and mentors, just like the mentors who guided her on her journey. Called to leadership and to supporting others in the work she does now, it was inevitable from her early years in the church and the examples set by her family that she would end up doing the work she now does. She says: “They often say be the change you want to see.” That is what motivates her. Her greatest challenge now, she believes, is in her role as Assistant Vice-President (EDI) in guiding people of colour in academia, and particularly women, to achieve their potential and that includes her own desires to further achieve. “In my role I have to draw strength from the people around me […] who have similar convictions as me, who have similar values as me to keep myself focused and not get derailed.” It is the support and strength she gets from the Network of Racial Justice (NRJ) and inspirational mentors inside and outside City that helps her, saying she doubts she would be half as successful in her Vice-President (EDI) without their support and guidance.


It would be easy for someone in Dr Jones Nielsen’s position to get complacent and comfortable in the role she has as a Black woman in an institutional leadership position, but she will have none of that. She says: “I think that’s the problem sometimes, it is like we get to these places, and we pull up the drawbridge or we draw up the ladder. It is easy to drawback or retreat into that safe space.” Dr Jones Nielsen believes it is about working with people and creating “that blueprint for others to follow and for others to succeed.” She laments the lack of Black women professors in the UK and wants to see a change. She deeply believes she must pull women up alongside her: “I have to challenge myself; I have to put my hands out and I have to pull others up and I say again, it is always about being that mentor, being that support and being that guide to others. It is not the time to retreat, but the time to extend ourselves, like I say – in the service of others.”