Nobody in Danielle Alexander’s immediate family had ever gone to college. So, despite maintaining a 3.9 GPA and being in the top 10 of her graduating class, she didn’t think college was in the cards for her. Growing up in the Englewood neighborhood on the southside of Chicago, college was often seen as financially out of reach. Danielle had the work ethic, the drive and the talent to succeed, but what empowered her to make the unthinkable a reality was her family and the numerous mentors she sought out along the way.
As a senior in high school, Danielle reluctantly attended a school event hosted by a college counselor from Illinois State University. She sat in the back row, not putting much stock into the presentation. However, afterwards, the counselor specifically sought her out. He told her that he had seen her file and asked why she was sitting in the back. “You’re going to college,” was the message she took from their conversation. Though she still wasn’t totally convinced, from this point on, Danielle started to believe that college was a possibility, but the real obstacle of finances remained. With this, her support system kicked in. “I give my mom credit. Despite not knowing about the process and being intimidated by it at times, she took me to FAFSA workshops. Seeing the numbers work out, it was now a no-brainer. I was going to college and I was going to go to ISU.”
Danielle’s first semester was a shock. “I had imposter syndrome. I still didn’t see myself as someone going to college.” Making matters worse, she had always thought that the only path to success was to become a doctor. “I was pre-med because I falsely assumed that that was what my parents and everyone expected of me.” After almost failing out, the dean of students, who had become a mentor to Danielle encouraged her to change her major and wrote a letter on her behalf so she could continue her schooling. She chose sociology as her new major initially because of the easy math requirement, but after taking her first sociology class and finding that it was the study of people, she instantly fell in love with it and was back on the path to success and to graduation.
It was no accident that Danielle had so many mentors at ISU. She knew that college was not an opportunity she could waste and made it a priority to seek out deans and administrators to form relationships. It deeply impacted her seeing professional Black men and women doing important work in education and she wanted to learn from them. She made the most of her jobs, internships and made her name as a campus leader. These relationships were powerful and instrumental to her success, but her family was always her biggest support. Danielle recounts the sacrifices her mother, father and big sister made in order to get her to college, which is why it was such a blow when her father passed away shortly after her graduation. “Losing him was mentally draining and life altering. It put a strain on how I viewed things.” So, while she struggled with depression and her mental health following her father’s passing, she also recalls constantly feeling his presence which motivated her to succeed and to make him proud.
Upon graduating, Danielle knew she wanted to return to Chicago, but she wanted to do so with a purpose. At this time, yet another mentor spoke words that started Danielle on her current trajectory. “Knowing my story, and seeing how I connected with people she told me that she could see me going into higher ed. I didn’t want to be a teacher or a professor so I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. But she offered to pay my way to attend a conference. What did I have to lose? A week later I reluctantly went back to her and admitted that she was right. Higher education had so many avenues besides being a teacher or administrator and it was what I wanted to pursue.” Danielle had her purpose and so returned to Chicago to pursue her M.Ed in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Higher Education from DePaul University.
Upon completing her Master’s Degree, Danielle took a job at Columbia College in Chicago as the coordinator for the Antiracism Transformation Team where she continues to work today. Her job is vast and is being created day to day with her vision. She is committed to creating programming that urges staff and students to examine the history of Columbia, the power matrix in Higher Ed, systemic oppression, and the idea of allyship in regards to undocumented and international students. In taking this job, Danielle also had her first exposure to the IEA/NEA. She was inspired to see the benefits offered to her and also to have the opportunity to share space with other educators and begin to more deeply understand educational policy.
This past year, Danielle received an email from the IEA noting an opportunity to become a fellow for the Educator Voice Academies project. Realizing that it aligned with her professional goals and interests she applied and was accepted. The goals of EVA are to implement policy and increase awareness around the four main initiatives identified by members including: SEL and culturally responsive practices, supporting Multilingual Learners, recruiting and retaining teachers of color, and higher education. In the past year, Danielle co-hosted a Strong Public Schools for All event and is committed to continuing her work advocating for and supporting marginalized populations particularly Black women. Never content to sit back, Danielle always has a 5- and 10-year plan in mind. She is currently working on her PhD from DePaul. “In my 5 years of working in this field, I have not seen many people of color let alone women of color in administrative roles such as President, Provost or VPSA, I am determined to reach those levels and strengthen the system of education to be more equitable for students of color.”
While she works towards these positions of power, Danielle understands the current power she has in sharing her story as a Black woman. In her work with Columbia and with the EVA she shares her academic and mental health struggles very freely but acknowledges she did not always feel safe to do that. “There were always people who were ready to use my story against me and so I was sometimes guarded. But now I feel empowered by my story, and the people who sacrificed to get me here. I will always be proud to share my story because there will always be at least one “me” in the room that needs to hear it and see that representation and transparency.”