To celebrate 50 years of coeducation at Kenyon, we’re profiling three dozen of Kenyon alumnae during the 2019-20 academic year. These women, merely a small sample of the thousands of female graduates who have earned Kenyon degrees since 1969, will discuss their undergraduate experiences and how their education in Gambier prepared them for their lives and careers.
The 30th alumna in our series is Janae Peters ’10. She is the vice president of Kenyon’s Alumni Council and has been an educator for over a decade. Peters is currently a founding faculty and design team member at the Mastery School of Hawken near Cleveland. She was also an English teacher and director of advising at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, as well as dean of students and director of summer programs at the Indian Springs School near Birmingham, Alabama. Peters majored in English at Kenyon and earned a master’s degree in social work at Smith College.
How do you prioritize your life and get things done?
Much of my educational experience has been in community through boarding schools. Maybe two years into teaching, I told myself that I would always “choose people.” Given my background, interests and experiences, that often means choosing to fight for equity and access for people who — because of race, socioeconomic status, and/or geography — aren’t always prioritized in education and creating the conditions for those folks to experience growth, find their voices and understand that they are needed in our world. When I think about what needs to be done, I prioritize that mission, which can manifest in acknowledging and acting on the need for self-care, family-building, engaging my mentors, and doing deep-dives into research so that I can put good energy into my professional life and bring the fight to any table at which I have — or have created — a seat.
Where did you first discover your power?
I am never sure about how I want to talk about power. If I think about it as power to or power of, I think I’ve discovered my power to teach truth to power and have it be heard, and the power of that level of influence. I think the full origin of it was my mother showing me that my voice, thoughts and experiences mattered from the time I started talking. Then I learned how and when it is wise to use that power. And, honestly, I honed these skills with my family first. My family is filled with strong folks with strong personalities who have experienced a lot in their lives. As a small child, I would conduct classes for my younger siblings and cousins where I would teach them everything I learned at school. For some reason, they listened to me. Those experiences never really ended. I have carried a sense of responsibility to my listeners with me throughout my life. As an educator, it has helped me to be responsible with my words and truths, and I have learned when it’s best to access this power to and power of.
Who at Kenyon inspired you?
My Kenyon experience was filled with inspiration. I first stepped foot on the campus the summer before my senior year of high school when I participated in the Summer Kenyon Academic Program (SKAP), where I first met James Greenwood ’02, Jen Neubauer ’04, Tina Smith ’03, Kevin Britz, Dudley Thomas and Jennifer Delahunty.
In the years that followed, I started to make it a point to find and collect my people, but that first year at Kenyon was critical. In order of encounter among the people who changed my life that year were: Marla and Mark Kohlman, Glenn McNair and Sylvie Coulibaly, Sarah Heidt ’97, Chris and Myrna Kennerly, Blossom Barrett ’08, Frankie Gourrier ’08, Laurel Stokes Gourrier ’10, Kafúi Akakpo ’10, Lucia Pizzo ’09, Kirsten Reach ’08, Ivonne Garcia and Lance Oliver, Ted Mason, Ric Sheffield, Miriam Dean-Otting ’74 and Charlie Otting, Jon and Peg Tazewell, Deborah Laycock and Jim Carson, all academic advising and Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP) folks, Crossroads folks, Saskia Warren ’10, Barbara Dupee, and Patrick Gilligan.
There are honestly so many more people I could and should list here (especially beloved English department folks, all KEEPers, and the rest of the SKAP/Camp 4 family), but we would be reading this all day. I had a plethora of deeply meaningful and inspiring relationships with Kenyon folks and would not have ever learned about Kenyon if it weren’t for [Professor of American Studies] Peter Rutkoff’s access- and equity-minded vision for what was possible at Kenyon for students from inner-city Cleveland. So much of what I learned and experienced — and how I grew and evolved — at Kenyon has been the guide and life force for my personal and professional life goals and achievements.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I was having a particularly tough time working through what I now know to be impostor syndrome in my second semester at Kenyon. I was doubting my ability to succeed academically and thinking the College made a mistake by admitting me. The transition had been tough. I was talking with [Associate Professor of English] Sarah Heidt about these concerns one day when it all felt intense and, as a follow-up to our conversation, she emailed a piece of advice that I memorized without even trying to memorize. She wrote:
“No one can make anyone else create a beautiful life for herself just by beginning to open up an opportunity. And not everyone who gets an opportunity makes a beautiful life out of it. You got yourself here, plain and simple, by being the person you are. And you will keep yourself here, and you will excel when you leave here. You. You have done and will do these things.”
She accompanied it with a winter nature photo she had taken and that photo lives on every desk I’ve had in the past 10 years as a reminder of that advice. It made all the difference.
How has your worldview evolved since leaving Kenyon?
Since leaving Kenyon, I have taken the idea of “paying it forward” to heart. So much happened for me there academically and personally; people only ever asked that I pay it forward. I understand the significance of mentorship and have also witnessed what happens for people when they don’t have someone in the educational environment who holds them in unconditional positive regard and who works to understand their needs and act in the students’ best interests. I received a lot of Kenyon’s access efforts as a student, but as an educator have witnessed the many structural barriers to access and equity at the high school level and beyond. I have learned about adolescent identity development in the educational environment and what is at stake when adolescents don’t achieve a positive and cohesive sense of self. At Kenyon I noticed and accessed my feelings and in my post-Kenyon life I have done the work and had the experiences that fuel my passion for this important and good fight.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read about the previous woman in our series: Melody Travers ’12
Read about the next woman in our series: Janet Heckman ’76