How TJ Jones Transformed from Naval Cook to Future Turfgrass Manager

Outdoors enthusiast and former naval cook TJ Jones is fulfilling his ambition of becoming a turfgrass management professional.

During Celebrate Diversity Month, we’re spotlighting this impressive student who began his academic career at the Agricultural Institute (AGI) at 24. 

AGI attracts students from various regions in the state and provides hands-on education and professional training in the agricultural industry via its two-year degree programs. The institute’s six academic programs offer students the practical knowledge and experience to succeed in agriculture and related industries.

Set to graduate in December 2022, Jones’s journey reveals a hopeful message that following your inner compass can lead to a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.

The Call to Serve

Hailing from Cross Creek Township just outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Jones always loved the outdoors. His participation in FFA during high school planted the seeds of his future career aspirations.  

Following high school, Jones entered the US Navy. 

Military service offered Jones the chance to exceed the limitations of his hometown. During the five years Jones served, he reached the rank of E-4 petty officer third class and served as a naval cook. As a galley watch captain, he supervised operations and helped provide meals to over 4,000 sailors on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Ronald R. Reagan. 

Throughout Jones’ military service, he completed a total of three deployments. In addition to serving as a barracks manager at the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan, Jones traveled to France, Italy, Bahrain, Dubai, Australia, Singapore and the Philippines.

From Sea to Land

But staying in the navy wasn’t Jones’ ultimate destination. “In Fayetteville, you get out. If you stay, there’s not much. I wanted to become something more.”

His tight-knit family motivated Jones to find his purpose closer to home. “I wanted to stay in the navy, but I’m a family man,” he says. “Having that support system ultimately convinced me to leave the navy.” Jones leaned on that familial support to guide him forward, despite his uncertainty. 

Ready to pursue a new path, Jones conducted informational interviews with agricultural professionals. Several people he interviewed had ties to NC State. The university’s world-renowned reputation for excellence in faculty and research captured Jones’s attention as he considered future possibilities. 

Ultimately, AGI’s turfgrass management degree program impressed him as a top vocational choice.

On leave from the navy, Jones started his first semester.

“I’m glad I joined the military and then came to NC State. If I had entered straight from high school, I don’t think I’d be as mature,” Jones reflects. “I believe being older has given me an advantage. I have a goal. It’s all about mindset.”

Getting into the Weeds

AGI prepares students for careers by providing top-notch industry-specific curricula. Yet coursework isn’t the only ingredient for a successful academic program. Accessible and engaged faculty can enhance students’ experiences and significantly increase their levels of achievement. 

Not only are the AGI courses relatable to Jones’ everyday life, but the real-world impact of faculty research made a strong impression. 

Jones took Plant Identification, taught by Associate Professor of Horticultural Science Brian Jackson. The course examines the identification, adaptation, culture, and use of ornamental trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, and herbaceous plants. “Taking that class and being out in the elements studying these unusual plants was intriguing,” Jones recalled. “That course kept me on my toes!”

Jones also participated in an integrated pest management plan through the Advanced Turf Management course led by Grady Miller, professor of turfgrass management and extension specialist. Professor Miller has performed consultation work at an Italian soccer stadium and also traveled to Beijing to help prepare athletic fields for the 2008 Olympics.

The Advanced Turf Management class selected a problem weed in a specific type of grass and learned how to control it, mechanically or culturally. The method blocks a turfgrass area and keeps it dry to prevent compaction and allow growth. As a result, the grass competes with the weed roots and drowns out the pest. 

“It’s exciting because this is what I’ll be doing professionally,” Jones explains. “If I become a golf course superintendent, I’ll have to develop these integrated pest management plans to deal with weeds, insects or diseases.  It’s very applicable. I don’t feel like I’m doing something that I will never use.”

A Hole in One

To complement his in-class education and professional preparation, Jones knew he needed more industry-specific training. With the help of AGI Assistant Director Alyssa Degreenia, Jones landed his first summer internship at the Gates Four Golf and Country Club. 

Degreenia was instrumental in helping him create a resume and cover letter that positioned him to find a job in turfgrass management. “I’m coming from the navy and going into a completely different field. But I learned a lot at Gates Four Golf and Country Club, and I’m thankful.”

Jones is considering interning at Gates Four again during the summer of 2022.

Do It! 

Jones doesn’t graduate until December 2022, but his time as an AGI student has benefited him more than he imagined. 

He credits his success at NC State with his relationship with the faculty. “The faculty will provide you with abundant knowledge,” he assures. “The experiences and opportunities you get here are once-in-a-lifetime. Be all ears, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Get acquainted with your professors, stay after class, and ask questions.” 

When asked what advice he would give to prospective students considering the program, Jones asserts, “Do it! At NC State, you will learn things that you never thought could be possible. Being here provides a tremendous opportunity to expand your knowledge.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.