Jenna Peterson-Magnuski

Jenna Peterson-Magnuski

Born 1986

Jenna Peterson-Magnuski. Photo by Nate Magnuski.

I was born in 1986 near Chicago; my mom stayed home with my older brother Chris and I, and my dad was a mechanic for a plastics factory. The first 10 years of my life was spent in a very near suburb to the city, bustling with people of all sorts of backgrounds. Then the school district suffered from a failed referendum, slashing the budget, which would eliminate art and music. My mom decided to move us further away from the city, to a place we could barely afford even though she had already returned to work, so that we could attend the best schools in the state. When I was about 16, we adopted Steve, who is the same age as me.

As you can imagine from that, education was very important to my family but especially to my mom. She attended one semester of college before my brother was born, then attended a certificate program when I was younger. I clearly remember starting to print a congratulations banner on a dot matrix printer before we went to her graduation ceremony, and it still not being done when we got home! We also got to see my grandmother graduate first with her bachelor’s and then a divinity degree. Lifelong learning, in all its forms, was never a question of whether but a question of how. I was taught very early to love learning – reading, enriching television, museums, and cultural experiences. I was spoiled to be 45 minutes or less away from Chicago’s world-class museums and zoos. My grandmother and I used to go on “adventures”, visiting the cultural neighborhoods that make up Chicago. I tell my own kids that I try to learn at least one new thing every day, or life would be boring.

When I was getting ready for college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I liked the idea of being a teacher or guidance counselor, of being one of those experts on History Channel documentaries, of being a photographer, and of being a forensic scientist. I decided that even though I liked science, I wasn’t good enough at math to be a scientist. Photography wasn’t a practical choice. So I decided to major in history and minor in secondary education at Framingham State College (now University). Except I never got around to secondary education – I was too busy taking electives in psychology, philosophy, and sociology. I liked to tell people that I was a chronic over-analyzer. I liked to think about how people thought, and what that meant for the stories of our lives & of our world.

I met a boy at the beginning of my sophomore year, and within days we knew it was something special. A month or so later, Nate Magnuski took me home to meet his family. I remember turning from East Road onto Stone Church Road, and him saying that this was his street. I remember thinking how spectacularly different Little Compton was than the cities and suburbs where I grew up. It was so quiet and green – I distinctly remember being awed by the way that the trees hugged the roads and filtered the sunlight. The first introductions went smoothly, and that night we stood outside, looking up at the stars. I had never seen so many stars in my life. He stood behind me and wrapped me up in his arms. “What do you think? Could you live here someday?” I don’t remember exactly what I said back, something about being willing to do it if it was for him.

In the summer after my sophomore year, I decided that I wanted to do an internship for my history program, but I would have to find one myself. Nate told me that his town had a historical society, so maybe I should call there. After a lot of nail-biting, I called. Marjory O’Toole answered the phone. I had no idea then what an impact that call would have on my life. I interned there that summer. Coming to live in Little Compton was a culture shock at first, but I came to love it. I came back the following summer as a regular staff member and helped Marjory with Hands On History summer camps. At the same time I was also working at town hall, in the building official’s office.

At this point, I didn’t want to teach high school and I didn’t want to work in museums. (I was under the impression that I’d learned what the Wilbor House had to offer. I was very wrong. I blame being 22.) I was an administrative (or head) resident assistant and learned that it could lead to a profession. I wanted to run a college residence hall, making it a great place to learn not only academics but about who students are as people. My own boss at the time told me I would need a master’s degree, so I applied for programs in student affairs in higher education.

Senior year threw me a curveball. My dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer shortly after New Year’s. I decided to move home to help take care of him. This was one of the few times that my mom and I fought. Among other things, she worried that I wouldn’t finish that last semester and graduate. I’m proud of the choice I made, though. Nate made the same choice, coming home with me to take care of my dad and taking his last semester online.

In April, I was offered a place in a master’s program in Pennsylvania. I gave them a tentative answer, not knowing what lay ahead, and they understood. My dad was only “supposed to” survive a few weeks, and he had held on for four and a half months.

Nate’s grandmother had passed in February, and my dad passed in late May. Nate and I moved to Pennsylvania, ready for some positive momentum in our lives. I started graduate school, he started a full-time job, and we had our first apartment together.

One evening, Nate came home from a night out with some friends. I was sitting on the couch, studying, and he said “Let’s get married.” I laughed and said, “okay.” We had talked about it before, both seriously and jokingly. He said, “no, really, let’s get a ring.” His friends had been complaining about how they didn’t want to be with their nagging girlfriends, and Nate decided right then that he only wanted to be with me ever and left.

We got married the day before I graduated from my master’s program and we moved back to Little Compton. We knew that we wanted to be near his parents for a while after the sacrifices he’d made to be close to mine. I went back to the historical society while I job hunted. I got a job in Boston, and then in Worcester. Since I was done with graduate school, Nate took his turn and got a degree similar to mine. Whenever I could make it back to work at the historical society or attend events, I did.

Our first son Edmund was born in Boston, and our second son Oliver was born in Worcester. We always planned on coming back to Little Compton before our kids were school-aged so they’d be considered “townies”. When Oliver was born, we moved up that timeline and returned to my in-laws’ house in Little Compton. (Yes, we all still live together in our 1904 farmhouse, and we like it that way!) Two educators’ salaries wasn’t sufficient to have both kids in daycare, and I was burned out from the total commitment that living and working in the same highly-demanding place required.

I started working at the historical society regularly again and felt myself coming back to life. Wilbor House let me teach people about the building and its residents, but also about Little Compton, about New England, and about what it meant to be human across the centuries. Marjory was finishing her graduate program at Brown in public humanities at the time, and I started to ask her questions about managing the historical society, how she researched, how the exhibits come to be, and just about everything else I could think of. She encouraged me to apply to the master’s program that I had found in public history at University of Massachusetts – Boston. I started there in Fall of 2019. In the end, I wound up back at education and history, just in a slightly different form!

I’ve also gotten involved with a litany of groups around town. I attend the Prevention Coalition meetings. At the school, I sit on the Social-Emotional Learning Committee. As a member of the school’s Wellness Committee, I run a before-school activity program called BOKS that is aimed at priming the body and brain for all kinds of learning. I’ve become active at school committee meetings and co-founded a small anti-racist discussion group in town.

Jenna Peterson-Magnuski

May 7, 2020

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One thought on “Jenna Peterson-Magnuski

  1. You have been raised by generations of strong and loving women. To be in a position now where you can take all of your well-rounded education to the following generations is exciting. To have a job you love is not a job at all. All of those years of watching the History Channel, reading, walking cemetery’s and attending classes was prepping you for this step. I am proud of you and I am excited other people see and acknowledge your love of history, tradition and family.
    Love ~ Mom

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