Jalen Alexander ’14 is a modern-day Renaissance man. With intellectual pursuits that range from statistical consulting to sociology, long-term aspirations that include educational policy and psychology, and weekend plans that just might include DJing a campus party, Alexander dabbles in nearly everything.
Parked at a table outside Usdan, Alexander took twenty minutes in his insanely busy schedule—his afternoon included two other meetings, a dinner obligation, and a workout—to discuss racial profiling on campus, the possibility of his going into politics, and being the valedictorian of his Missouri high school.
The Argus: Why do you think you’re a WesCeleb?
Jalen Alexander: I think that throughout my years at Wesleyan I’ve been involved. I started early during my freshman year in various student activist groups, and that kind of developed; my name spread throughout the years. I started in my freshman year taking leadership in Ujamaa, which is the student of color organization on campus. So I joined the board my freshman year, and since then it’s expanded into Residential Life. I’ve done a lot of work with the WSA, and now I’m on the board of Invisible Men, so I kind of have my hands in a lot different things.
A: What’s the most exciting thing you’re doing right now?
JA: I think all of the things I’m doing are exciting. Since it’s senior year, I kind of have to put everything out there that I can, so it’s a really big year for me. Over the years I’ve decided to do the things that I’m passionate about and really love to do, so with some groups I’ve had to take a step back.
I’m on the board of Invisible Men, and that’s a really big priority for me, and I’m the head resident for Bennett, Clark, and 200 Church. I believe in developing RAs so that they’re better and better every year. So those are two really important things for me. Also, the Traverse Square tutoring program—I’ve been a coordinator going on my third year, and that’s a very important thing in being involved in the community for me.
A: What’s Invisible Men?
JA: It’s a male [student-of-color] student organization. We’ve been around for quite a while. We do a lot of student activism both in the form of mentorship, so bringing in freshmen and sophomores coming into Wesleyan, making sure they feel welcome in the community, and we also do a lot of activities throughout the year. One thing we did last year, which was a really big hit, was we threw a party with the local fraternity and all the proceeds—[we raised] money and we gathered canned goods and boxed goods—went to local families in need for Thanksgiving. So we do different events like that. And I worked on a collaboration with Traverse Square and Invisible Men. We do a lot of work in the Wesleyan community, making sure people feel welcomed in and invited, but also branching out and working with other student groups.
A: What makes being a man of color at Wesleyan challenging?
JA: I think there are a lot of invisible—ha, no pun intended—challenges that we face. I think one challenge we faced last year, which led up to the student forum “Diversity University,” was that racial profiling was happening, and we weren’t really sure who to go to about those issues. You know, public safety issues weren’t very transparent, so there were many issues on campus just as far as feeling welcomed going places. We face the challenge of making sure these issues are known, and that they are still relevant today, whether it’s in the classroom or in the dining hall, or in residential spaces.
A: Can you think of a specific time when you or someone you mentored felt unwelcomed here?
JA: There are things as little as when you’re walking down in front of Exley and you see someone cross the street because they don’t know you. So little things like that to larger things on campus, like being asked for your WesID by Public Safety. For some people it’s a daily occurrence, but for me I’ve had the benefit that many people know me on campus, so there’s less of a fear of stigma. But with Public Safety [officers] who don’t know me, it’s an issue.
A: About your involvement with Residential Life: Would you like to see more program housing for younger students, or is it good the way it is?
JA: You know, I think there are benefits to waiting for your sophomore year to do that. It’s hard to strike that balance because I think it would be great for freshmen to enter into these communities, but then I can also see the benefit of giving them a chance to find themselves in the context of Wesleyan, which can be a very hard thing to do, and then say they want to experience a community-based living house.
A: What do you study here? What’s going on in the classroom?
JA: I’m a psychology and sociology double-major. I also do a lot of work for the QAC, which is the Quantitative Analysis Center, so right now I’m a TA for a data analysis class. It’s my third time TA-ing this class, and I also TA “Statistical Consulting” in the spring, so that’s really been my academic focus: using statistical and data analysis to do more applied work in both psychology and sociology.
A: Does your knowledge of psychology change the way you think about racial profiling?
JA: I think it gives me a backing in understanding how it affects people, so being able to have conversations with people and empathize even if there are some things that I haven’t experienced. I’ve had certain experiences as an African-American male who identifies with African-American culture at Wesleyan, but there are certain cultures that I don’t necessarily identify with, so being able to empathize and have those tough conversations even when I don’t exactly have that life experience has really helped in both psychology and sociology.
A: So what’s the next step for you?
JA: That’s a big question. Ultimately I want to do a JD-PhD program, so continuing in psychology for the PhD and also doing law.
A: What kind of law?
JA: Educational policy. I’ve been thinking about taking off a year or two to do a—well, I don’t want to name a specific program—but doing a Teach for America-esque program to get in-the-classroom experience. I think having the experience in the classroom will be great to then translate and inform the policy decisions I make.
A: What were your own educational experiences before Wesleyan?
JA: I came from a really poor background, both socio-economically and academically. My school was on the verge of losing accreditation every few years. I graduated valedictorian, but I graduated valedictorian of a school that wasn’t as academically rigorous as it could have been, so it was challenging to come to Wesleyan…. My first semester—my first year—it was hard to adapt to that and forced me to get on my game early.
I also had the opportunity to do a program called LEDA, which is Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, going into my senior year in high school, and we did a tour of schools in the Northeast. Wesleyan was one of those schools, and I kind of just felt at home here. Before LEDA, I didn’t know what Wesleyan was, so I think being able to come here was a great opportunity to step out of my comfort zone—I’m from Missouri—and get that education.
A: Do you think that you’ll return to Missouri at some point?
JA: Yeah. That’s my ultimate goal, to use the experience and the knowledge and also the resources that I’ve gained, to work in the educational field and improve that situation back home, but also to further engage the community. There are a lot of opportunities around, but a lot of resources aren’t tapped into. It’s so different being in the Northeast for so long, and I want to stay here for graduate school, but my ultimate goal is to help the community.
A: Are politics in your future?
JA: I don’t know. If I see that as the best way to affect change, I’d entertain it at that point. My ultimate goal is to affect change in the community but also in the wider world, you know, if I want to be that grandiose.
A: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask that feels important?
JA: I have a very eclectic background. I do a little bit of everything. And I think that that’s what’s been able to sustain, over the four years, my still being relevant. [Laughs.] Because it’s hard—some people get stuck in one thing, and they’re known as the person who does this. It’s good that Jalen isn’t just the person who tutors kids—and that’s a great thing to be known for—but he’s also the Jalen who likes to have fun and be the campus DJ, and work in Residential Life to build community. I try really hard not to be fit into a box.