University of South Florida

Boundless Bulls

Portrait of Amber Jankowski in front of a mural.

Amber Jankowski

It was after the fourth surgery that they finally told her no. It was after the fourth surgery that she would be medically discharged, her dreams would be diverted, and she’d have to see a vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor to figure out what was next. Amber Jankowski was a military dental hygienist before the surgeries on her hand disabled her, forcing her to reflect and reinvent herself. Little did she know that, sitting in the VR office with others whose lives also hadn’t quite gone according to plan, she would find something she was passionate about, a new life purpose: vocational rehabilitation and disability advocacy.

Jankowski worked with a VR counselor and while exploring her interests, she found herself asking the counselor about her job and her day-to-day. The counselor encouraged Jankowski to further her education. This led her to choose the University of South Florida’s Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program for its proximity to MacDill Air Force Base, where her husband was stationed, and the fact that it is ranked No. 27 by U.S. News & World Report. USF has also developed a new program, the online Master of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling and Disability Sciences, to provide students with a smooth passageway to enter the field of vocational rehabilitation and to address the nationwide shortage of certified vocational rehabilitation counselors.

Her time at USF opened her eyes to looking at one’s ability rather than disability. She learned to focus on a person’s interests and strengths and to recognize and normalize the wide variety of skills individuals can have.

“It’s recognizing that just because someone doesn’t have abilities that look like yours, it doesn’t make them any less beneficial to use,” Jankowski explained.

While serving in the military, those around her recognized her innate ability to work well with others. Jankowski was not only the military equivalent of a dental hygienist, but she also served as a patient advocate, listening to the hardships of those in need and providing solutions. In this role, she was particularly moved by veterans with disabilities who were learning to cope with their new realities.

“I saw their anger and frustration that they couldn’t do the tasks that they were previously able to do, and heard their struggles as they navigated toward a new type of ‘normal’ in their life,” Jankowski said. “All of this made me move toward something in human services, but until I met a vocational rehabilitation counselor, I didn’t quite know where to focus my energy.”

During her studies, she got an internship with the help of her well-connected professors, which blossomed into a career as a senior vocational rehabilitation counselor with the Florida Department of Education’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. In this position, Jankowski was able to help people with disabilities find their own employment or education through mentoring and guidance. Her daily tasks varied: Some days she took on more of a counselor role, some days data entry, and other days she says she is “networking like a Realtor.” Every day is different, as she personalized her strategy and approach based on a client’s needs and provided tailored solutions and resources to them.

“My favorite part is seeing people’s faces light up when I find something they can be successful at, when finally, one person believes in them,” Jankowski said.

In her career, she has not only found joy in helping others but also in the supportive and collaborative community of vocational rehabilitation counselors. It is because of this community and breadth of opportunities in the field that she recommends anyone with an interest in VR to take the leap and pursue it.

“You don’t know until you get here, so for anyone who even thinks it may be a good fit, I always tell them come in, give it a year, and if you decide it’s not the right fit for you, you’ve networked so much and know about all of these other agencies,” Jankowski said. “If you have interests in working with people with disabilities, you know 10 other places to go apply, and you know a lot of people who have seen your work ethic. It opens up so many doors for you.”

As COVID-19 presents new short- and long-term physical challenges, Jankowski stresses that the field of vocational rehabilitation will remain stable, but that she and her colleagues will continue to learn to improve the lives of others no matter the situation. Disability advocacy and the value of being in a person’s corner will always remain at the forefront.

“I think it is so important because none of us are immune to it,” said Jankowski. “None of us is going to live a life without exposure to a person with disabilities or experience disabilities ourselves as we age or as we go through experiences.”

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