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The Professor Is In: Jennifer Pankowski

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Jennifer Pankowski, EdD, assistant clinical professor and program coordinator for special education at Pace’s NYC Campus, shares her passion for teaching, Betty White, her previous experiences in business fields, and her advice for students seeking their passions.

As an assistant clinical professor and program coordinator for special education at Pace’s NYC Campus, Jennifer Pankowski, EdD, is responsible for curriculum development, adjunct development, and providing student support for all students within the program. Though she originally planned on pursuing law, her deep passion for special education sparked from a family connection and her work with children with disabilities, and she decided to get her doctorate of education in interdisciplinary studies. In this Q&A, Pankowski shares why students should be passionate about their fields, how she transitioned from business to teaching, and why she wouldn’t have wasted her time looking at law schools if she could do it all over again.

Q: What made you passionate about your current career?
A: I graduated with my bachelor’s and I was in an unrelated field. I was in the business field for five years and made a lot of money, but I still wasn’t happy. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to a headhunter. It really caused me to self-reflect at about 27 years old and I had to decide what I was going to do to make myself happy. I had a heart-to-heart with my best friend and she asked me, “When was the last time you felt good about a day’s work?” I said, “The last time was when I was volunteering at a local elementary school working with children with disabilities.” She said, “Well I think you found your career.” I decided to go back into a program designed for career changers and I fell in love with the field. When I was almost done with my master's, the opportunity to be part of a brand new doctoral program had started at my school, and I spoke to the head of the department and I said, “I think maybe I want to get a doctorate in special education.” He guided me along and I went right for my master's into my doctorate. I think being a little bit older was when it clicked and that’s how I found myself here.

Q: What quality do you value most in your students?
A: Even more importantly than being able to understand the material, you need to have the passion for the field. There’s a lot of skills in terms of knowledge that I can teach. I could teach you the history, I could teach you a different strategy for teaching, but one of the things that is so critically important to becoming a teacher— of high school, early childhood, elementary school, or middle school—is for them to have the passion. To show up to class and be really excited to learn.

Q: What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
A: One of the biggest mistakes I made myself as an undergrad is that I came in with this preconceived notion that I was going to do a certain career path, and I didn’t allow myself to be open to other opportunities. I think particularly for undergraduate students, my biggest piece of advice is to stay open-minded. Take a class that you wouldn’t necessarily think of taking. Most programs allow you to take some electives. Surprise yourself and take a class you wouldn’t ordinarily think you want to take as an elective because you may find a hidden passion that you didn’t know existed. For me, when I went to college, I was a pre-law major. From about the age of 12, I thought I was going to be a lawyer, and I had tunnel vision. It was the only type of classes and electives I took. Then during my senior year, I had my internship and I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. I thought now I have this degree that was in nothing that I found interesting. So my biggest piece of advice particularly for undergrads is to reach outside of your comfort zone.

Q: If you had to do it all over again and take another path, what profession would you choose?
A: If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have wasted my time as an undergrad looking only at law school. But now that I have a background in both law and education, if I were to go back to school, I would look at politics possibly and educational law and policymaking. I do value the law and I do value a lot of things that come from our legislation, I just didn’t want to be in a courtroom. Particularly I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney and that’s really where things went sour. But the idea behind law and governing bodies, especially with everything going on in our country right now, I think if I had to do it all over again I would go into educational law and make an impact there.

Q: What is your favorite word? Least favorite word?
A: My favorite word is can and my least favorite word is can’t. My own background is that I had an undiagnosed learning disability for a very long time when I was younger, and when I started working with people with disabilities, the one thing I noticed that was very common was the use of “I can’t.” It’s because they are told they can’t, and I think that for me, the most powerful thing is to try. If you try, you would be amazed at what you can accomplish, and I think that when people come to me and say they can’t do something, that to me is heart wrenching. I’m not brilliant at everything that I do, but I try really hard, and for me that is when you turn your can’ts into can’s. You’d be amazed at what comes out of it. It might not be what you initially thought it was going to be, but it could be something magnificent.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure TV show or mobile app?
A: I am quite possibly addicted to the show This Is Us right now. It hit home for me. That show is all about people turning 36 and I happened to have turned 36 this year myself, so I really connected with it from that perspective. I have had a lot of changes both professionally and personally in this 36th year of life, and it parallels that show, so I really am kind of addicted to it.

Q: What was your favorite class as a student? Least favorite?
A: When I was really little, I loved history and it was my favorite thing in the world. Then when I got to middle school, it was my least favorite, and it really was all about the teacher. I had an amazing elementary school teacher in third grade—she is the one who identified that I have a difficult time reading because I had mild dyslexia and dysgraphia—and she turned me onto history and I loved it. Then when I was in seventh grade, I had an awful social studies teacher who made an example of me because I dozed off in his class because it was that boring. When he woke me up he made a fool out of me. Everyone in the class started laughing at me and from that day forward, I dreaded going to his class. I was always a good student, but the one time I got in trouble was for cutting his class and I sat in the bathroom and cried because I didn’t want to go. So for me it was less about the subject matter and more about the person teaching it.

Q: If you were a Pace student, what class would you like to take with another Pace professor?
A: It’s really hard to pick one person, but I have had the pleasure of being in a teacher’s circle with a couple of colleagues and Provost Uday Sukhatme was in our class the other day. We listened to him talk about physics. I took physics in high school, but it wasn’t all that intriguing to me. But because he has such a passion for it, I wouldn’t mind taking his class.

Q: What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
A: I would read more. I think that is the one thing that always gets shaved off of my list. Whether it be for pleasure or for research, I am always saying I am going to read something when I have time, but then it never happens.

Q: What is your favorite professional or personal journey/experience?
A: Professionally, the most exciting thing is that I recently published a book Developing Spontaneous Communication for Students with Autism. For me, that was a huge sense of accomplishment, just between working around amazing academics here, but then also my own journey. I was that kid that they told my mom in first grade, “We’ll be happy if she graduates high school.” And now here I am—I have a doctorate and I published a book. For me, that is gratifying both personally and professionally.

Q: What are you favorite words to live by?
A: My favorite quote in general is from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men when he says, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” I find myself quoting that quite a bit. I think that it is so applicable in so many aspects of our lives. For me especially in education, I am constantly speaking to students about how much they don’t like policy and how policy and different things are terrible. I always say that the intention behind it is really good. Sometimes the outcome isn’t what we planned on, but there’s a lot of good intention behind it, and I think that quote is very powerful in that regard. I think we jump the gun on judging people a lot and that is just in every aspect of our lives. I think maybe if we think more about the intention of things rather than the outcome, we tend to get a different perspective on people.

Q: If you could have any five people living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
A: I think you want to have a really well-rounded group and maybe an unusual cast of characters. I would love to sit down with Betty White because she is hysterical and there’s just not anything about her that I don’t love. John F. Kennedy would be someone else, especially with his own family history. Another reason I got into special education is because I had an aunt that was born intellectually disabled with cerebral palsy, and growing up, both my parents lived within walking distance of the Rosemary Kennedy School on Long Island. It was developed as a memorial to his sister, and I would be just so curious how he juggled the spotlight and having a sister who had a severe disability. Martin Luther King would be another one, especially with everything going on with his son and with the reading of the letters of his wife. I would be curious what his thought process is on all of this. He always found something good in everything negative. Also, my great grandmother who came from Ireland. She passed away when I was very young and I would love the opportunity to sit down with her again. Lastly, John Steinbeck because he is my favorite author.

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