If you’d told the teenage Jason Tjaden that he would someday be a pediatrician with a thriving private practice in suburban Chicago, he wouldn’t have believed you. Jason didn’t have a clear idea of where he was headed back when he roamed the halls of Vandalia High School. But he did leave Vandalia with a solid education and good values on which to build a life.
In fact, when he headed to Providence, Rhode Island for Brown University in 1989 he felt more than prepared academically. Coming from a rural community, he had a bit of culture shock amongst such an eclectic, diverse group of students. In fact, he struggled to relate with these kids from private college prep schools and had very little, culturally, in common with them. Unsure of how to navigate socially, he felt overwhelmed and, ultimately, unhappy in this unfamiliar college crucible.
Ironically, he thinks that the fact that he was from a small town in Illinois may have been an important factor in what helped him get into an Ivy League school. Brown, prides itself on its diversity, and he thinks he may have enabled them to sort of “check a box for rural, Midwestern” student.
After having given the Ivy League its fair shot, Jason switched gears and transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign—a prestigious university in its own right—earning a degree in biochemistry, a field he soon discovered he absolutely loved. Upon graduation he determined that he had three options: 1) do research in a lab; 2) be a sales rep for a pharmaceutical or medical device company or; 3) continue his education and go on to medical school. He chose the latter—sticking with U of I—and says that he “couldn’t have landed in a better spot.”
Jason can’t say enough good things about the University of Illinois and points out that too often, we think (as he did) that only schools with prestigious names can provide large-scale opportunity. His experience convinced him otherwise. He hopes that students coming up now look at what colleges offer beyond their ‘brand perception’ and he believes that the University of Illinois stacks up with the best. Jason’s not alone in that belief. U of I is ranked in the top 15 of all Public schools in the country, is currently ranked #7 in Aerospace Engineering, and #3 in Biochemistry. And while he admits that he has sometimes dreamed of moving to California and getting away from the harsh Chicago winters, he is clear that the education he received here in Illinois—from grade school through to med school—was top-notch.
Jason’s connections to Vandalia run deep, “I don’t know anything else really.” He was born and raised here, as were his parents and grandparents. His dad runs the local pharmacy and tried to persuade his son to follow in his footsteps, but Jason clearly chose a related but divergent path. Reflecting on his life’s professional journey, Jason says, “I didn’t necessarily choose medicine, it kind of chose me. It’s been an interesting journey.”
We asked how growing up in Vandalia impacted that journey. Jason paused to reflect and said, “Growing up in Vandalia gave me an appreciation for small towns and the for the community connections,” you have there. “The high school teachers in particular can show a greater interest in you in a small town. That had a lot to do with developing my self-esteem and I don’t think I would have gotten that in a large high school. Getting to be a big fish in a small pond was good for me. I don’t think I would have fared as well as an adult if I hadn’t had that beginning.” Vandalia taught him to appreciate people and to not take them for granted.
We wondered what challenges he faces as a pediatrician. He notes that the advent of the Internet and Google has really changed the doctor-patient relationship. He finds that the parents of children he treats put a lot of stock in what they find in their own research, even if they are not looking at reputable sources. He has some parents who trust and respect his medical opinions but in many cases he feels like his years of education and training are not sufficiently valued. He worries about how this impacts health care for Americans in general, but is particularly concerned for his young patients. While the immensity of online resources to which we all have fingertip access today may be helpful, there is just no substitute for the well-considered application of those resources by a deeply experienced medical doctor or healthcare professional. Still, it is clear in the contentment we hear in his voice and the sparkle in his eye, that he adores the work he does and the lives he’s able to positively impact as a Pediatrician. In fact, on reflection, it’s hard for us to imagine Jason Tjaden doing anything other than what we found him doing—and doing so well— 34-years after he walked across high school’s final stage at VCHS.
Speaking of high school’s final stage, we closed with the question, “If you had a chance to speak to the graduating class at VCHS this year, what would you share with them?” After a long pause, Jason says, “I think I would tell them to live, to really live for the moment, and appreciate the community that you are growing up in. That’s something that I see now, but don’t think I did then.” Turning a bit wistful, he says that he finds that in his suburban life, everyone is wrapped up in their own lives and there’s not much community. So, he says, “Try to appreciate the community that you have now because that is not a given as you move on.”
For us—those of us who produce the Vandalia ONE magazine and other community-facing resources—Vandalia often feels very much like our adopted hometown. And so it is easy for us to imagine Jason’s wistful glance back at the hometown of his youth, and to share his warmth and appreciation for it. We think Jason is probably a better pediatrician for having had roots here, but the community itself is the beneficiary of having been host to young, pre-Dr. Tjaden, if only for a time.