As a UCF alumna, “American Gladiator” contestant, Donald Duck impersonator and lover of all things animals, you may think Jill Schenk, ’90, was born of sunshine and positivity. However, her life as a young adult was far from this fallacy. In fact, UCF was one of many locations that she attempted to take her life.
An amazing athlete, Jill rode into college on five athletic scholarships. Yet, the pressure of being “good enough” plagued her, and Jill hated herself. She began to abuse drugs and alcohol, which cost her the scholarships, and got her kicked out of two colleges.
“I hated myself and, because I did, I couldn’t accept love or kindness from others,” she explains. “It really is true what they say: You can’t love others until you love yourself. I hid in my addictions with alcohol, drugs, anorexia and bulimia. I also was a cutter. I wanted someone to save me and, if someone tried, I thought there was something wrong with them. I didn’t realize that I needed to work on loving myself.”
So, how did a woman who struggled through such dark times in her youth become one of San Diego’s most inspiring teachers?
It took the 12-Step Program and the encouragement of men and women all over the world who’ve worked through these obstacles themselves. She realized that the bad times developed into learning experiences, and she was on this earth for a greater purpose. Jill believes that her primary purpose is to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety by learning how to live and enjoy life one day at a time.
Now, Jill shares her bright personality with her students at San Diego High School. At the conclusion of each class, she has her students repeat the following: “I’m awesome. I’m beautiful. I’m confident. I’m determined. I’m enthusiastic. I can do anything I put my mind to.”
After years of turmoil and personal conflict, Jill is now 20 years sober. These days, Jill balances her time helping others become clean and sober, being the best teacher she can be, volunteering for Big Animals for Little Kids and taking care of her own four-legged children.
Busy and bustling as she may be, Jill is an inspiration to everyone with whom she crosses paths.
Q. What did you want to be when you grew up?
A. A veterinarian, but everyone loves animals. Not everyone likes kids or teenagers. I just wanted to help a kid not take the path I took. And, if he or she did, I wanted to let them know it’s never too late to change.
Q. How has your UCF degree helped you in your career?
A. It landed me a teaching job in Malibu, at Our Lady of Malibu, where I taught many of the stars’ kids, like Nick Nolte, Cindy Williams, Pat Benatar and many more.
Q: How has your UCF experience connected you to people and/or opportunities?
A: I’ve met a few people here in San Diego where we go watch UCF play football, but I don’t stay long because I’m sober and bars aren’t really where I hang out anymore.
Q. Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A. Thoughts lead to words. Words lead to actions. Actions lead to habits. Habits create your character. Your character creates your destiny. Change your thoughts from negative to positive and it will change your future. It all begins with my thoughts. I wish I would have known that in high school or college.
Q. What’s your favorite activity to do with your students?
A. I love dancing with my students or spraying them with the water hose on hot days. I enjoy playing soccer with a yoga ball. It’s absolutely hilarious.
Q. What was it like to compete on “American Gladiators?”
A. It wasn’t at all what I expected. Three-thousand people tried out, and I was one of 13 to be picked. The show was filmed in one arena, so they’d set up one event, then put Gladiators and contestants in, then switch Gladiators and contestants, then switch them again. Then, they would tear down that set and put up another one. It took an hour and a half between each event, when on television it looked like just a commercial. The show changed my life and brought me out to California.
Q: Happiest and/or proudest moment of your life?
A: My sobriety date: Feb. 5, 1994. My family threw me a surprise 20-year sobriety party. That was amazing, because there was a time in my life when I couldn’t even go 20 hours. I also have three U.S. patents, and I’m the co-producer of a movie. And, I was very happy to get the Inspirational Teacher Award.
Q. What advice would you give those who are facing struggles similar to those of your past?
A. As long as the body is still breathing and the heart is still beating, there is always hope for things to get better. One day at a time, you can be free of your addictions and live a happy, joyous and free life. You can change from negative and destructive to positive and creative.
WATCH: “Inspirational Teacher: Jill Schenk” (NBC 7 San Diego)
Read more stories about alumni at ucfalumni.com.