Inspiring grads: Jason Baksas

Jason Baksas (Photo: Josh Clark)
Jason Baksas (Photo: Joshua Clark)

Jason Baksas was supporting a family of five as a dean at a South Side school when he decided to take a night-shift job in a hospital psychiatric unit — and a $20,000 pay cut — to pursue a new career in nursing.

“I would work the night shift, then go take my prerequisites, and then come home and be a dad and husband,” said Baksas, who graduates Dec. 14 with his master’s in nursing.

Baksas has tackled a challenging schedule — integrating rigorous coursework with a full-time job — since he began the College of Nursing’s graduate-entry master’s degree program in fall 2017. The program, for students who have undergraduate degrees in other fields, includes seven consecutive semesters of coursework, including summers.

“I knew I wanted to go into nursing, but I didn’t want to get a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “So I researched UIC, and I liked the diversity of UIC and the mission, and their commitment to students.

“It’s been challenging, but I was really able to go all in. I appreciate the rigor of it because I felt like I grew immensely in these last 28 months.”

Before pursuing nursing, Baksas received a bachelor’s in criminal justice, then worked as a dean at an alternative high school on the South Side for at-risk students, many of whom were in the juvenile court system.

“A lot of the kids were court-ordered there. Some of them were fresh out of prison,” he said. “I saw a lot of kids die. And I saw probably double that go to jail. It was difficult to watch that. There was a lot of stress. Just the amount of violence and devastation, it took a toll on me.”

He decided to change his focus to helping others through nursing, specifically in pediatric mental health. About a year into his master’s program, he was hired at UI Health in the adolescent psychiatric unit.

“Through the hands-on experience, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge,” he said. “These kids, they’re hurt, and they need a lot of love and compassion. Being physical with them doesn’t work. I like to get inside their brain and get inside their heart and show them that there’s a better way.”

His experience as a father helps guide his work with patients. Baksas and his wife, Priscilla, have four children: Eliana, 8, Anaiah, 6, Micah, 5, and Selah, 2. They welcomed their youngest during Baksas’ first semester in the program.

“Typically, I’ll wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, study for about a couple hours, then go to work, then come home and be with my family — and I won’t touch anything school-related or work-related for those hours,” he said. “It was important to me that my kids didn’t feel me gone — it was really important for me to be present during this whole time.”

His role as a father helps him nurture his patients, too.

“They’re my kids when I’m there,” he said. “They come from broken homes, foster homes, and I try to be a solid foundation for them. I have to clock out because I have my own kids to raise, but I take a piece of them with me, and I think about them when my kids are asleep.

“I think about what I can do the next time I go in there to help build their self-esteem, their mental fortitude and to teach them as well because they’re not in school right now.”

Baksas hopes to be accepted into UIC’s doctor of nursing practice program and become certified as a mental health-psychiatric nurse practitioner. He’s excited to celebrate his achievements at commencement.

“I’m going to be overjoyed at graduation,” he said. “All of my family will be there, and I feel like they earned this degree with me.”

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