Alumni Success: Dr. Janelle Alexander, Director of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging at Washington Township Public Schools

Today we feature Dr. Janelle Alexander, a Rowan alumna who earned a bachelor of arts in Special Education in 2001 and a doctor of philosophy in Education and Disability Studies in 2020. Dr. Alexander was selected as the Washington Township Public School Distict’s first-ever Director of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging this 2021-2022 academic year. 

Why did you choose Rowan to study Special Education? In other words, Why did Rowan stand out to you in your college search?

I initially did not want to attend Rowan to pursue my academic career because my mom went to school there when it was Glassboro State. I felt that I have always been reflective in the mindset that “if Harvard was in my backyard, would I not go?”

When looking at the major I wanted to study and understanding that Rowan was known for education, I quickly realized that not going to Rowan simply because of how close it was to home and because my mom attended the University was foolish.

At the end of the day, I knew Rowan produced quality educators and I saw the impact that Rowan’s education had on others, particularly like my mother who has been an amazing educator who taught in the Camden City School District for many years. I decided Rowan was a good fit for me to pursue my academic goals and to prepare me for my future endeavors in the education field. 

Why did you decide to go back to Rowan to obtain your Ph.D.? 

I always aspired to earn a terminal degree. I had a conversation with Dr. Monika Williams Shealey, who was extremely helpful in guiding me and sharing the positives and negatives of the different paths I could take in furthering my education at Rowan. I learned that obtaining a Ph.D. provided more opportunities in my eyes to being a practitioner from a research perspective.

To obtain and earn a Ph.D. that focused on access, success and equity was appealing to me. Within the Ph.D. program at Rowan, there was something called HOLMES Scholars, and within this component of the Ph.D. program you are connected with doctoral students of color nationally. In particular, there is a small percentage of females of color who have their Ph.D.’s. This created another network in which these scholars can be supported from and attracted me to this program. I wanted to be impactful in this area and grow my skill sets to be able to make a change, and Rowan gave me the resources, support and mentorships to do so. 

Janelle in her doctoral regalia.
Janelle in her doctoral regalia.

When did you know you wanted to study disability studies for your Ph.D.?

My undergraduate degree was in special education. I found that there was not a place that critiqued education. Educators and administration do not always get it right. Disability studies allowed me to question how we socially construct ability. I like to educate those into understanding how everyone learns differently, engage in the world differently, and therefore can learn from each other’s differences. I believe ability is socially constructed and that we have created and put barriers in place. This study allowed me to not only critique but have a voice.

How did you find out about the position for the first-ever Director of DEIB for Washington Township Schools?

The position was posted by … it honestly was not a position that was on my radar. I was recommended by two colleagues of mine that work in the school district and that were familiar with my work. 

Janelle in her doctoral regalia with Ph.D superman shirt.

What does this position entail for you? What does a typical day look like for you?

Because I am the inaugural director, I am currently on a listening and learning tour where I engage with administrators, community members and families, and over the next few weeks I will be shadowing students in the classroom. There are 13 schools in the school district in which I work and will be spending a day with one or two students in each respective school. During this time I will be going to lunch with them, going to the bus stop, sitting in on their classes and learning through experiencing school life with the kids. I believe there is no better way to learn on how to do things better in a school than to actually sit down with the kids, observe and start conversations with them. 

From this experience I will gather all my data, along with some general demographic data, propose a strategy plan, and then use all the work that is happening now to propel goals and objectives to the district to move closer to the goals of being more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and a place where everyone feels they belong. 

What is your overall goal as working in this position? What do you hope to gain from this experience?

Overall my goal is to set the ripple. I want to set the ripple of a space where students, staff, administrators and all people in education feel seen, valued, and heard. I say “set the ripple” because a ripple starts a wave and a wave leads to a tsunami. As the first director of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belonging, I want to make a difference and influence others to make a difference as well. 

Janelle Alexander.

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Story by:
Natalie DePersia, junior public relations major

Photos courtesy of:
Janelle Alexander

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