Propelled by a love of learning
Before becoming the dean of the University of California at Riverside (UCR) School of Education, Joi Spencer was just a kid in Los Angeles who loved to play school.
“It wasn’t so much that I was enamored with sitting at desks and writing on blackboards — I just really loved learning,” said Spencer, who earned her master’s at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) in 1999, after coming to the Farm nine years earlier to pursue her bachelor’s in African American studies with honors in education.
Since then, she received her PhD in mathematics education from the University of California at Los Angeles and has gone on to hold several positions of educational leadership, including working as an associate dean and professor of mathematics education at the University of San Diego and co-founding STEAM Academy, an interactive summer learning program for middle and high school-aged youth in underserved communities in California.
One of three recipients of the GSE’s Alumni Excellence in Education Award this year, Spencer will be honored on Oct. 20 at a ceremony during reunion weekend. To register or find out more about the event, email Tiffany Ah Tye at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here, Spencer discusses her educational journey, pain points in the education system, and ways she’s looking to grow as a leader.
What were some of the key moments that led to where you are today?
I had a really good educational experience growing up during a time when things were being desegregated in LA. But I also had some challenging experiences where teachers didn’t treat me fairly, where I was assumed to not be smart.
In my mind I had to be incredibly focused, because I didn’t have many degrees of freedom coming into education from where I came from. I shoot from the space of making my work about supporting underserved populations because that was me.
My experiences helped me frame education in a bigger way, which was preparation for becoming a dean or someone who’s leading a school.
What’s a recent milestone you’ve achieved in your goals to improve education?
I’m the first woman and person of color to be the permanent dean of education here at UCR. That’s huge to me because we’re talking about Southern California, a place that’s racially mixed and politically liberal, and the fact that this is the first time is really powerful.
Next year will also be my tenth year helping to run STEAM Academy, and that initiative is specifically for Black, Latinx, and refugee youth to gain access to universities through exposure to STEM and the joys of math and science. I’m very proud of what it’s done, because I’ve now seen students who were in our program go on to receive college degrees and work in STEM fields.
If you could see one problem in education solved in the next decade, what would it be?
A lot of the time, schools are run in a style that is stilted and stoic, lacking joy, freedom, and creativity. So for me, a major intervention that we could have in education is simply bringing in joy and play and hopefulness into schools that serve Black children.
In what ways are you looking to grow as a leader?
I definitely want to sit at more tables and engage more with the educational policy world and meet people who are doing that work. That, and I would definitely like to be able to spend more time with students. Aspirations-wise, I’d love to one day lead a university.