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NCAN Alumni Spotlight: JWells, Ph.D., Denver Scholarship Foundation Alum

Friday, June 26, 2020  
Posted by: Carm Saimbre, External Relations Associate
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As part of the NCAN Alumni Spotlight series, we’ll be sharing the stories of outstanding alumni who have come through our member organizations over the years. At a time such as this, we believe it’s still important to share the success stories of the students our members serve. We hope you enjoy the series and this week’s alumni.

Jazmine Wells, known professionally as JWells, is an alum of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, where she became a DSF Scholar while attending Colorado State University–Pueblo. She served as the lead peer tutor/mentor in DSF’s inaugural year of its Retention program at CSU–Pueblo, impressing everyone with her commitment to fellow Scholars. JWells earned her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and currently serves as the Assistant Director of Lower Division Writing at UT Austin’s Department of Rhetoric and Writing. Read more about JWells’ story below:

Tell us a story of how a mentor or counselor helped you on your journey to earn your postsecondary degree/credential.

When I was a sophomore at Colorado State University–Pueblo, a professor gave me a ‘C’ on an essay I wrote for one of his upper division English courses. After confronting this professor, he welcomed me to stop by his office hours when I was ready to learn to write an ‘A’ level paper. After taking some time to humble myself, I reluctantly attended his office hours the next day.

That office hour meeting was the start of a mentorship, during which this professor taught me to think critically about the texts I was responding to, consciously use my lived experiences to inform my writing, and to coherently piece together persuasive arguments. A year after receiving that ‘C,’ I wrote one last essay for this professor. Along with awarding me an ‘A,’ he told me, “You’re ready for graduate school, let’s start applying to Ph.D. programs.” This year, my former professor and current mentor witnessed me defend my dissertation and receive my doctoral degree from the same department and university he received his doctoral degree from.

As a student, what hurdles did you face while getting your postsecondary degree/credential?

Initially, my biggest hurdle was socially adapting to graduate school. The first Ph.D. program I attended tokenized me; rewarding my Blackness with heightened attention, which manifested in the form of both privileges and macroaggressions. The Ph.D. program I later transferred to provided a much healthier environment, allowing me to fully focus on my research. There, I was faced with the hurdle of gaining institutional permissions to conduct research with incarcerated mothers, which proved to be difficult as a graduate student because I was still in the process of establishing my credibility as a trustworthy scholar. I navigated both of these hurdles by learning to advocate for myself.

Why was it important for you to get your postsecondary degree/credential?

It was important for me to get a Ph.D. because my presence in academia creates space for other people from minority groups to pursue higher education. I initially pursed a doctoral degree because I loved learning so much I wanted to stay in school forever. When I started graduate school though, I quickly realized I was one of few minorities and the only African American in my Ph.D. program. At that point, I decided I needed to earn my Ph.D. in order to create opportunities for other minorities, particularly women of color, to get a graduate degree. I also felt getting a Ph.D. would provide me with the credentials and agency necessary to extend academic resources to incarcerated students, which has always been my primary goal.

What inspires you to work in your field?

Opportunities like this one, where marginalized voices are presented with a platform to speak inspire me to work in the fields of rhetoric and writing and literacy studies. I too want to empower others to compose their narratives and to create platforms where they can circulate these narratives. As a scholar in literacy studies, I help dismantle the barriers that prevent people from speaking up and speaking out. As a trained rhetorician and writing instructor, I provide people with the tools needed to make critical contributions to conversations that impact them and their communities. 

In light of COVID-19, it’s important for students to hear words of encouragement from those who were in their shoes not long ago. What advice would you give to students right now?

In moments like this when the world is being consumed with chaos and uncertainty, it is normal for you to feel exhausted. Take a guilt-free break and allow yourself some time to adjust. Figure out a routine that helps you to recover and reenergize, and engage in that routine daily. Trust me, you will reach your goals and initiate the change our society needs. Your presence alone is enough to make a difference, but you have to take care of yourself in order to be mentally, spiritually, and physically present for your communities.

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