In a classroom at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Jessica Beckendorf discovered her passion for helping communities.
“When I started at Green Bay, I had no clue what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to be an accountant,” she said.
Beckendorf needed to choose a major by the second semester of her sophomore year, and when that point arrived, “I still hadn’t,” she said.
However, that soon changed.
“The first day of my Intro to Urban Studies class, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was completely in awe that someone could make a living doing good things for their community.”
Beckendorf said her entire 15-year career has been about working to help communities thrive.
“I’m excited I get to do it in a county that I care about,” she said.
That is because Beckendorf is the new community, natural resource and economic development director in Waupaca County’s UW-Extension office.
Her first day on the job was Dec. 22, and working in Waupaca County is a bit of a homecoming for her.
Beckendorf was born in New London and was just 2 weeks old when she moved with her family to San Diego. Her father was in the U.S. Navy.
“My whole life, I’ve been coming in and out of Waupaca and Outagamie counties,” she said. “I primarily grew up on the West Coast.”
Growing up in a military family means Beckendorf was exposed to people with different backgrounds.
She got used to meeting new people and making new friends.
“I feel that I’m able to relate to many different types of people regardless of how they feel about something,” she said.
Those experiences gave her the ability to take a step back and see all sides of issues.
When her father retired from the service, they moved to Manawa.
Beckendorf was just about to start her junior year of high school and did so at Little Wolf High School, graduating in 1993.
After years of moving, she decided to attend a university not too far from home and chose UW-Green Bay, graduating from there with a degree in urban and regional studies.
She said in spite of her family’s many moves, she never really thought about the idea of community until taking the class about urban studies.
Beckendorf always had an interest in maps, and her first community development job was working in cartography at East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
“I always say I have had just about every job you can have in the community development field,” she said.
After East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, she worked in urban planning for eight years in the city of Menasha.
Next, Beckendorf worked in economic development with the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce.
Prior to joining Waupaca County’s UW-Extension office, she worked part time with Extension in different counties and then at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Business Success Center, where she worked on their aerospace initiatives.
“While working for the city of Menasha, I decided I wanted to further my education. I needed something more. It took me about five years to find the program I wanted,” Beckendorf said.
She found Gonzaga University had an online program with classes about leadership and communication.
Last May, Beckendorf received a master’s degree in communication and leadership studies through that program.
It was after working part time with Extension that she knew it was where she wanted to be.
“I knew within the first six months it was in my blood to continue on. I was looking for a permanent full-time position working for Extension. It feels like it’s been an amazing fit. I’m very excited about that,” she said.
Beckendorf and her husband, Randy, live in Appleton with their two dogs and three cats.
Her new role in Waupaca County includes rolling out the next Leadership Waupaca County class.
A workshop will be held this spring to promote the 2016 class, which will begin in the fall.
One of her goals during the upcoming year is to get to know the people who live in the county.
“My goal really is to figure out what the goals of the communities are and to support those goals from an educational standpoint,” she said.
Over the next several months, Beckendorf plans to visit communities in the county and conduct needs assessments.
She already has some ideas about what those needs are, thanks to the work of a focus group.
“But I still need to conduct one-on-one conversations with people in the communities,” Beckendorf said. “I’d like to find out what people feel the priority needs are.”