Challenged but Not Derailed, Maria Jones Profile

Office of the Provost

Maria Jones didn’t let a broken neck on New Year’s Day 2015 break her spirit. In her sophomore year at JMU, Jones fell hard while ice skating in Pentagon City. “Obviously, it hurt, but the body does weird things when you do things like that. I remember sitting up and that really hurt. The pain kept getting worse and worse and worse.” Jones knew she couldn’t drive, but was able to walk to the car. Friends drove her to the ER. She got an X-Ray and then a CAT scan that revealed she had a burst fracture in the C7 vertebra.

Maria Jones “I came back to school which, looking back, I wonder why I put myself through that. I guess I’m a little bit stubborn. And the thought of staying home all semester sounded terrible. I define myself as a student and I couldn’t think of doing anything else.” JMU’s Paratransit drove her to all of her classes. “I could do no bending, lifting, or turning. People were super nice to me and helped carry things and got me food. There are times in your life when you must accept help from other people. I didn’t really have a choice.”

Jones returned to the hospital a month later – her neck was not getting any better. “We had to do spinal fusion surgery right away,” she remembers. “I didn’t have time to worry about it or really think about it too much.” The first days of recovery were excruciating. “That was the most painful part of the process. I was in the hospital for two or three nights, and they had to make sure I got up and walked a lot, even with the pain. My parents were really awesome through all of my recovery.”

“I really could track my progress by how far I could walk each day,” Jones recalls. “I remember the day I got all the way around the block. It seemed like a miracle. I knew then that maybe I’d be returning to school. I wanted to get better and go back to school. And of course my professors were really great too.” She missed the month of February, but still managed to finish all of her classes that semester. “Every professor came up with a different plan for getting me back on track.”

The injury, she says, strengthened her faith, especially given the potential for permanent paralysis. “I had a lot of time to pray, and I didn’t have any excuses not to do that. It also taught me to be patient. I don’t consider that one of my strong suits. My default is to always be doing something or planning to do something. I learned that it’s okay sometimes to let go of the plan. I also realized what it might feel like to have a disability for a lifetime, even though I had a disability for only a semester. And what it means when your disability becomes invisible. Even after I got the neck brace off, I continued to use Paratransit. I could imagine other students asking ‘Why is she still using the van?’”

Jones grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the same house her whole life. Her father is the executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), a trade association that deals with toll roads, transportation interoperability, and logistics. Her mother worked at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), but stayed at home when Jones and her siblings were kids.

When she was younger, Jones really wanted to be a teacher. “I just loved school. In elementary school I’d come home and pretend play school with imaginary students. My 5th grade teacher showed me how to make lesson plans. In middle school I really got into playing trombone, and I thought seriously about maybe becoming a band teacher.”

She attended T. C. Williams High, immortalized in Remember the Titans, a film starring Denzel Washington that documented the true-life 1971 struggle for integrated football at the school. “I’ve seen it probably 100 times. We used to have two high schools in Alexandria – one white and one black. A lot of the football players depicted in the movie still work for Alexandria city schools. Today my high school is so diverse, and not just racially. We have so many immigrants. We always thought that was normal, until you went someplace else.”

In high school Jones really got interested in economics and business, and became an avid podcast listener. One of her favorite podcasts is Freakonomics, a radio program that discusses socioeconomic issues. “Economics raises a lot of interesting questions, and it tries to take into account human motivations.” Her mother thought she would be good at accounting because even as a kid she was the ‘organized’ one who kept others in line. “I was that kid who had dozens of Hot Wheels cars and arranged them by color and family,” Jones jokes.

“I pretty much knew I’d be going to a Virginia university. I applied to a lot of schools, 12 or something, and I came in undeclared. I wanted to go someplace that had many options. But then it just kind of came down to the campus visit. We actually stopped here on the way home from a visit to Virginia Tech, and I realized that this is where I wanted to be. Everyone seemed really friendly, and I could easily picture myself in this or that building on campus.”

Jones joined the JMU Honors Program’s Student Honors Advisory Council (now the Honors College’s Madison Honors Leadership Council), and quickly rose through the ranks to vice president. She also got involved in Residence Life as a resident advisor in Shenandoah Hall, the honors dorm, and then as a hall director for Wampler. “This last year has been really fun. We’ve had so many events including MADtalks, which are interesting or inspiring talks given by students, faculty, alumni or friends of JMU and the Honors College.” Some of her favorite honors events include holiday parties at the Honors Dean’s house and pizza downtown at Bella Luna. “The new Madison Honors committee members are so excited, and that makes me excited too.”

“I was that person who took Honors and AP classes in high school and thought I could get something out of them in college too,” she recalls. “And I stuck with it. I’ve seen the honors council through from the very beginning. I have to say that first year is kind of blurry,” she laughs, “but I kept going and really liked the people.”

Her parents encouraged her to take classes in the College of Business. “At JMU you take two accounting classes before you declare a major. It turns out I’m good at it. It’s just the way my brain works. Sometimes my dad will send me excel spreadsheets and ask me to figure things out – and my mom says he should pay me for that.” Jones has a job waiting for her at CPA firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause. “I interned there this past summer and liked it. I did a lot of tax work and want to continue doing that. I did both tax and audit, but I really enjoy tax. It’s so different all of the time.” She is now engaged in analyzing the potential effects of a proposed Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) standard for those in the auditing profession and for users of financial statements. This study will form part of her honors capstone project with advisor Dr. Luis Betancourt in the Department of Accounting.

Jones also works the poetic parts of her brain, a developing interest she credits to her AP English teacher Matthew Zahn. “Before I got into his class I thought I was a good writer. I’m sure Mr. Zahn is a lot of people’s favorite teacher. He just really took the time to connect with people. Praise from him felt so good.”

She is now taking her second poetry class at JMU with Laurie Kutchins, an associate professor in the English Department and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “Poetry really works a different part of my brain than accounting. Accounting is not like poetry. I have to be creative in both poetry and in accounting, but in poetry there are far fewer rules and less order. I literally have to be in a different head space when I’m doing poetry.”

“It’s really easy for me to get caught up in classwork and performing well on tests. I like order in my day. But I do kind of think the imaginative aspects of poetry help me develop my mind to be creative in accounting. I want to be a tax professional, and taxes are so dynamic. You have to think about all of the individual permutations of the client situation that you encounter.”

“Of course,” she deadpans, “there’s a difference between being creative and engaging in tax evasion.” 

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Published: Monday, January 30, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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