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Community college students learn about opportunity through Jennifer Jovel’s class and life story

March 21, 2016
Jennifer Jovel, PhD ’08
Jennifer Jovel, PhD ’08 (Photo by Marc Franklin)
After receiving her PhD at Stanford, Jovel chose to go ‘home’ and join the faculty of the school where she discovered her passion for education

The students in Jennifer Jovel’s Intro to Sociology class at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif., chuckle when she tells them she knew her 85-year-old Salvadoran grandmother had succumbed to modern culture when she asked, “Honey, how do I do Face Time?” A few minutes later, Jovel asks the students to ponder what they have in their backpacks and how they line up in a grocery store to check out.

With warmth and relatable imagery, Jovel, PhD ’08, defines “culture” in a way that makes the more than 100 community college freshmen in the lecture hall feel as though she was them not so long ago and that they are in her living room.

Jovel is home.

And, once an Ohlone student, Jovel now has four advanced degrees, the most recent of those — a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate in the sociology of education — from the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE).

With those credentials, Jovel is a hot prospect for many universities, but being a tenure-track professor of sociology at Ohlone is her dream come true.

Even before recent initiatives by President Obama and others to build and strengthen the nation’s community colleges, Jovel has been their ambassador. Her journey through academia highlights the values of person-to-person mentoring and the community college system.

Jovel is the daughter of hardworking immigrants for whom a college education was neither affordable nor in their ken.

“I tell students that I was in their seats, that I was an unconfident, aimless 17-year-old who had just gotten by at Fremont’s John F. Kennedy High School (failing algebra three times), never had a positive relationship with a teacher,” and never had career or college counseling there, said Jovel.

One summer day after her high school graduation she accompanied a friend to Ohlone so that he could register for classes with Nina Genera, a counselor there who has since retired.

When he was finished, Genera asked Jovel what classes she wanted to take. Jovel insisted she was at all not interested in attending college.

Genera was adamant that she should try. Jovel did, taking many classes that brought her up to speed academically. She said she relied heavily on counseling and guidance from Genera and the school’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services program.

Jovel graduated from Ohlone with an associate of arts degree in Liberal Arts in 1997. She went on to the University of California, Berkeley, to earn her BA in social welfare with a major in sociology and a minor in Chicano studies in 1999. She then moved to San Jose State University to earn her MA in counseling in 2001.

She accomplished all this with financial aid, part-time work and counselors like Genera, who she said encouraged her when she “freaked out” thinking she was not cut out for transitioning to higher-and-higher-level work. All the while, Jovel maintained 4.0- grade averages.

While attending San Jose State, Jovel worked at Ohlone counseling students intimidated by the process of transferring to four-year colleges and universities.

“I loved work, but I also felt like I was not done being a student either,” Jovel said.

It was on to Stanford, where Anthony Lising Antonio, associate professor of education, became her advisor and champion.

“She is a person who really benefitted from the community college system in ways that are unbelievable to some people. Once she got to the doctoral program, it was clear to her that she wanted to be a faculty member, but more specifically at a community college. That is not the high status thing that some people from Stanford would aspire to, but she stayed grounded the whole time,” he said.

Jovel said her time at Stanford “opened my eyes to research and was key in helping me understand the bigger picture of the role of community colleges. “

Her award-winning dissertation focused on the transfer experience of Chicanas/os from community colleges to four-year universities. She explored how social capital — the value embodied in networks that are linked to socially valued resources — can be used to understand how Chicana/o students use these resources to transfer to universities.

While at Stanford, Jovel also served as an adjunct professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Ohlone from 2006 to 2012. She left her beloved school briefly to be a full-time counselor at Mission College. At that community college in Santa Clara, she worked with the Puente Project, a renowned program that uses innovative strategies to encourage academic success among diverse community college student populations.

In May 2014, the professorship she had long wished for opened up at Ohlone, enabling her to “give back what was given to me,” she said.

“I am devoted to teaching at the community college level because I see it as a vehicle for change. Community colleges have a great diversity of students from different academic, social class, racial and cultural backgrounds. It is where educators can have the biggest impact on students and make the most contributions to the community and first-generation students,” she said.

Jovel said she believes that sociology classes themselves and one-on-one advising are crucial needs for community college students.

“I see sociology as a way to empower students, to push them to think critically about their role in (re)producing culture, to uncover the larger patterns in society that shape who we are and how we live and to expand the possibilities they see in their own lives,” said Jovel, who also is the mother of two young sons.

Although she formally teaches and mentors Ohlone students, Jovel said living in the place where she works and grew up enables her to help them grasp opportunities.

“When I go to the gas station, chances are I run into young people and, all of a sudden, I am having conversations with them about enrolling, transferring, support programs, scholarships. . . .

“Being back in Fremont and at Ohlone is such a big deal for me. It is home. It is where my heart is,” she said.

Joyce Gemperlein, a freelance writer in the Bay Area and a former Knight Fellow at Stanford, is a contributor to the Educator, the online newsletter of Stanford Graduate School of Education. Please read our previous issues and subscribe.