“I love how friendly the people are and how closely connected everybody is.”
By the numbers, Jessica Gensel’s journey from her hometown of Chengdu, China to NEPA is a story of inspired minimization. From birth to grade school to undergraduate degree, Wyoming Seminary’s young Mandarin Instructor and 2024 Class Dean called the Sichuan capital home. After college, she traded Chengdu for Boston – graduate school at Harvard to be more precise. And, from there, she found her way to the Borough of Kingston. On a fish/pond scale, that’s a rate of reduction of roughly 99% (Chengdu pop. – 10,000,000+ / Kingston pop. – 13,000+).
After college, some venture out to a new city for that first job. Some try their luck in a new state. Jessica set her sights on an entirely new world and went after it. Teaching Mandarin in the small Pennsylvania borough would prove a unique challenge. It was one, however, that this only daughter of two proud university professors would come to accept as a valuable opportunity. She saw it as a chance to share her culture, her language, her home, her heart with this little piece of the world.
In her eight years sat Sem, she’s fallen in love, married a local, became a dog mom, scaled down from “city” kid at heart to cherishing quiet simplicity. She’s guided high schoolers from freshman jitters to graduation gowns. And she’s still never forgotten one of her very first, and admittedly crucial NEPA lessons – how to make a snow angel (when you’re supposed to be shoveling out the car).
We caught up with Jessica in Kingston at her office in Wyoming Seminary’s Sprague Hall. We chatted about mini poodles and Guinea Pigs and eventually got around to figuring out – why NEPA?
How long have you lived in NEPA?
So, it will be 8 years. Yeah, since 2013. I literally left graduate school in Boston and moved right here. And I will never forget that horrendous, 8-hour ride on the Greyhound. I came here for my interview, and I remember telling them that if they hired me, I was just going to stay. I wasn’t going back on that bus (laughs).
What do you love about your town?
I have to say that, first, I love how friendly the people are and how closely connected everybody is. I feel like whenever I walk into a coffee shop, or the grocery store, I always run into someone that I know. It just feels like you’re always running into family, or friends everywhere you go — or even students (which sometimes isn’t so good – laughs). I also love how peaceful and close to nature this town is. I walk around campus here and it’s beautiful. I walk through the streets, or two minutes down the road to the river and the dike. I like to walk Felix there. And that was not something I was used to. I’ve always lived in cities. It’s always so quiet here and I think that helps me decompress and relax at the end of a long day. And also, Kingston is a very convenient location. It’s close to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton and Dallas. There’s a lot to do even though it’s a smaller town.
What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?
Oh boy…this one. I have a long list here (laughs). But you’re going to make me pick just one, aren’t you? Oh… this is tough. Ok, well we love Peking Chef right here in Kingston. It’s convenient. It’s right down the street. I knew the owner. We had a close relationship. He helped me a lot when I first started here. And I know it’s “American-ized” Chinese food, but it’s the closest thing to a taste of home for me. And, it’s always a great deal – you know, for the amount of food you get (laughs). Let’s see, Tomasino’s holds a special place in my heart. I love Italian food, and that’s where we had our rehearsal dinner. Shogun’s half-priced sushi on Saturdays is another absolute go-to for us. And if we’re talking a little farther out, there’s this amazing place in Dickson City called 570 Ramen. They’re super friendly, and they’re from China, so again, it’s like a little hint of home whenever I go there. Then, if we’re talking brunch, we always go to the Bear Creek Café. It’s local, fresh and family-owned – kind of like a little Mom n’ Pop place, but a little bit of a fancier version. Sorry, I told you I had a long list (laughs). Oh, and sometimes I like to take my students to Sweet Treet. It’s great. You can’t beat the prices and the food is really good.
Oh boy… Ok. So now I’ll pick just one, right?… I’m just going to go with Peking Chef. Because we order from there so often and, well I really like their food. So… yeah.
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
We love to go to state parks. It’s like my new hobby now. I never used to do that when I lived in cities because you just didn’t have easy access to state parks. We like to go hiking, and to take Felix. We go to Frances Slocum and do the quick loop around the lake. Ricketts Glen is a summer favorite, but we haven’t taken Felix yet because I don’t think his little legs can handle all the up and down on those trails. We also love to ride our bikes around the neighborhood, or on the levee trail. I also can’t sit still for very long (laughs). I think that comes from my mom. So, we like to just get out and explore. Every weekend, I’m like “let’s go — let’s do something.” My husband is the opposite. He’s very chill, you know? He’s fine to just sit and relax. But we take small trips to like Lancaster. We love going to little garden centers around here like Dundee and Edwards and seeing what they have for the different seasons. Oh, and Nay Aug Park in Scranton – we go there when they have the Christmas lights. We also love Jim Thorpe. Who doesn’t? I don’t know, I feel like I explore a lot (laughs).
What’s next for you?
Well, professionally, I want to become a better Dean. I’m always trying to be better at understanding our student’s and parent’s needs so we can better serve them here at Sem. I want to continue with my leadership training and learn to work better with everyone on our team. I want to be a better leader and role model for everyone here at the school and in the community. And I’m introverted, I know you probably can’t tell (laughs), but I want to push myself to be more connected at school and community events. Another big goal for me is that I also want to continue to really grow the Chinese program here. I think even in our unique area, if I can bring a little bit of a different cultural perspective – to educate the parents and the students, and to help them see that there’s so much more than just Spanish, French and Latin – that would be a good thing for the area. I want to help people see that there’s a different path they can choose, and how studying Chinese can help them in a unique way. It’s like a niche, right? It’s something that can set you apart from everybody else. And I can do that here, but I’d also like to bring that kind of awareness to the community.
Personally, I’m getting closer to my mid-thirties, so we’re beginning look closer at starting a family. I also want to hopefully get back to traveling. I love to travel. That’s just part of who I am. So, I really hope we can get back on the road soon and go explore different parts of the world. But… baby making business first, I guess. We’ll see how that goes (laughs).
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
I think we’re heading toward more big franchise and name brand stores gone, in terms of business. And we’re going to have more local, boutique, family businesses and shops popping up. NEPA has so much potential. We just need to find those right, pillar businesses that work for us. And, in my mind, that is the small business – run by local families, connected to the community, connected to their loyal customers. I think that’s where we’re heading, and I think it’s the right direction to go. If we really continue to focus on that, we can go back to what we do best – creating communities and supporting each other.
Ok, so what brough me here was my job. What kept me here was mostly my husband. Another thing that keeps me here is that I’m starting to look past all these things like the desire to constantly be wanting something more, or doing something more. NEPA has helped me to better see to the core of life – the simplicity of life. I think that never really registered for me when I lived in bigger cities – to think about how we define happiness. NEPA really taught me to look inside and reflect. In the city, there’s always a distraction, and you don’t ever have the time or space to do that. Now, I can have coffee and relax and read a book, and that’s a good day, you know? So, I guess that kind of little shift in value is one of the things I fell in love with and it’s what’s keeping me here. And, obviously my job keeps me here, too. Wyoming Seminary is a really great place to work. Everyone here is so super supportive. I love teaching, and I love the students. So, yeah those kids and their families are also something that keeps me here.