From Heppner to Harvard

<p>Jennifer Rankin found time for horse jumping competitions while she earned her degree at Harvard University.</p>

Some people believe it takes a village to raise a child. Jennifer Rankin was a child who carried her village — the little burg of Heppner in Northeast Oregon — with her out into the world.

Rankin thought of her roots May 17 as she graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in political science.

“That small town will define me the rest of my life,” she said. “I take them with me wherever I go.”

Rankin, 34, landed in Heppner as a toddler when her parents, Tim and Kathy Rankin, moved from Portland. The oldest of three sisters, she grew up fearless, with a thirst for adrenaline and adventure. On the family acreage south of town, she learned to jump horses, practicing by jumping over downed trees and logs. She pole vaulted, skied and rock climbed.

Karen Beck, who taught Rankin middle school math, isn’t surprised she ended up in the hallowed halls of Harvard.

“She could be dreamy at times, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t thinking,” Beck said. “She just probably wasn’t thinking about math.”

Rankin’s affection for her hometown wasn’t fully developed as a teen. In fact, “I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” She moved to Canby in her senior year to live with an aunt and graduated from Canby High School in 1997.

The road to Harvard took more than a decade. She started at Clackamas Community College, transferring to the University of West Georgia in 1999, where she majored in political science and history. Her girlhood horse, a thoroughbred named Sundayleaf, went with her whenever she moved. Rankin paid her college tuition by managing a horse farm. In her spare time, she competed on the equine jump circuit, sometimes jumping fences taller than her.

In Atlanta, she met and married Swapan Jain, a doctoral student from India. The couple moved to Boston, where Jain was to begin doctoral work at Boston College. Rankin hauled Sundeleas behind in a horse trailer.

Rankin had thought of getting her master’s at Boston College, but decided to apply for a Harvard scholarship on a whim. She got it.

Harvard proved difficult, but eye-opening. Rankin said she had to hunker down and use every iota of her intellect and drive.

“It has a reputation to uphold,” she said. “Think of all the great thinkers and people it has inspired.”

The eclectic list of notable Harvard grads includes Barack Obama, George W. Bush, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, Yo Yo Ma, Leonard Bernstein, Mira Sorvino, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The university, while grueling, gives students room to think freely and “see the world in all its colors,” she said. “You can have your own thoughts and ideas. Harvard directs you to turn them into something substantial.”

Rankin did an internship at the United Nations. To write her thesis, she traveled to India to interview villagers about the effectiveness of India’s affirmative action policies.

In 2010, she and Jains moved to the campus of Bard College in Red Hook, N.Y. She boarded her beloved horse nearby. At Bard, Jain taught chemistry, while she worked on her thesis and coached the Bard College debate team.

Though she only picked up her diploma at Harvard Yard last Thursday, Rankin is already immersed in her career, still living on the Bard campus, but teaching students about political science as an adjunct professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. She finds political theory fascinating, the more abstract and hypothetical the better.

Rankin’s father said he’s proud of his eldest, but not surprised.

“She’s a very driven individual,” he said.

“She had high energy and a curiosity about life,” said Pat Edmundson, who taught Rankin in elementary school. “Her journey should inspire others to live their dream and always believe in themselves.”

“I did it my way,” Rankin said, “at about 90 miles an hour.”

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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