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Veteran finds love and success at UA Little Rock

J.T. Pooler, his fiance, Amber Mitchell, walk their two dogs. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications.

When J.T. Poole graduated high school in 2005, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served his country as an emergency medical technician and military police officer in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Iraq. 

By 2009, Poole decided it was time to go to college to finish his education. In the middle of his third semester at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Poole’s college career came to a crashing halt. On Oct. 1, 2010, Poole’s right lung collapsed, and he was given a rare diagnosis of a spontaneous pneumothorax.

“My doctor said he had only seen it once in his life before,” Poole recalled. “I was in the hospital for 17 days and had seven surgeries. I remember looking at my mom at my bedside and asking her if I was going to die. She had to lie to me and tell me no, but she was a nurse and knew how people looked when they were dying.”

For Poole, his illness was devastating. He had to drop out of college, was on bed rest for nearly two months while recovering, and faced large health bills.

“I was 23 at the time, and it was a life-changing experience,” he said. “I took two years off to get financially secure again. I went through a state of depression. In addition to just getting out of the military and adjusting to civilian life and almost dying, it was a hard time.”

In 2012, he moved in with his father, John Poole, who encouraged him to go back to college.

“In 2013, my dad passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was an eight-year battle of watching him fall apart,” Poole said. “I came back to Little Rock to help my dad. I made a deal with my dad that I could stay with him for free as long as I went to college. When he passed away, I made a commitment to him as well as myself.”

Since starting at UA Little Rock again in 2012, Poole has been on a mission to complete his Bachelor of Science in Biology with a concentration in ecology and organismal biology. He will graduate Dec. 16 in the Jack Stephens Center with the fall Class of 2017.

Poole’s most memorable academic achievement was his participation in a National Science Foundation-funded summer research experience at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Poole was one of only 10 recipients selected nationwide for the program, where he researched Boechera stricta populations, a flowering plant from the mustard family that produces chemical compounds to defend against predators.

Poole’s mentor, Janet Lanza, a professor of biology who helped him apply for the summer research program, described Poole as self-disciplined and a perfect gentleman.

“J.T. knew how to learn, was willing to devote the time needed to do well in his course, and had the maturity to balance long-term goals with short-term, immediate gratification desires,” Lanza said.

He also visited San Salvador Island in the Bahamas earlier this year to research mangrove trees, small trees and shrubs that grow in the intertidal regions of the tropical and subtropical coastlines.

“These trees are very important because when hurricanes come through, these trees protect the shoreline from erosion,” he said. “Over time, they have been harvested, and the trees are declining because the ocean water is getting more acidic. We went with the idea of learning more about these trees so we could preserve them for the future.”

Finding love at UA Little Rock

Poole likes to tell people that he and his fiancé, Amber Mitchell, a 2016 graduate of UA Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in biology, had instant chemistry; they did meet in chemistry class after all.

“We met in chemistry during the summer, and the next semester we had another class together,” he said. “Because my father was a tennis player, and she wore tennis skirts, I went up to her and asked her if she played tennis with the intention of starting a conversation about tennis. She said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Oh’ and turned around and walked away.”

After an awkward start, Poole got a second chance at the girl who got away.

“Fast forward two semesters, and we had a teaching class together. I saw the pretty girl that I failed to communicate with a year earlier. We went on a date and 2 1/2 years later we are engaged. We are literally polar opposites in a lot of ways, and I think that stabilizes us,” Poole said.

Poole and Mitchell got engaged in March, and the two have plenty of activities in common. In 2016, they helped co-found the Campus Garden Alliance. Both served as president of the student organization.

“Amber and I are both vegetarians and like to grow our own food, and we like to share that with others,” he said. “We harvested almost 700 pounds of sweet potatoes this year and donated it to the Trojan Food Pantry and sold 200 pounds to a Little Rock restaurant, The Root. It’s fun to share the campus garden experience with the younger students and see them being passionate about growing food.”

Poole and Mitchell are now running their own business, Pawfessional Pet Services, offering pet walking and sitting services. Poole said they have doubled their clients since August alone. Poole plans to spend the next year growing the business full time before starting graduate school to get a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.

In the upper right photo, J.T. Poole and Amber Mitchell walk their dogs. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications.