Meet Jen Fry: a native of Arizona, Division II athlete and veteran college volleyball coach with more than 15 years of experience. She holds two master’s degrees, one from Duke University and one from UNC Greensboro, and now is working toward her doctoral degree at Michigan State University. Suffice it to say, Jen stays busy.
And between leaving her coaching career and beginning her PhD program, she took on a new title: social justice educator.
“I left coaching in 2015 because I wanted to get into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI),” Jen says. “I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew coaching wasn’t the way to do it.”
Jen started a company, JenFryTalks, when she recognized a need for educating not only student-athletes of all ages, but the administration, staff and coaches who train them. Her speeches, workshops and consulting services aim to guide participants through an antiracist lens on issues of race, inclusion, intersectionality, diversity and equity.
This work led Jen to the Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations (ELC) Department at the UNCG School of Education.
Jen started her UNCG experience in the Peace and Conflict master’s program before switching majors to Applied Arts and Sciences. Not long before completing her master’s degree, she came across ELC’s Cultural Foundations classes. Something sparked in Jen’s mind — these were the classes she wanted to be a part of.
“The funny thing is, I had already graduated with my Master’s in Applied Arts and Sciences,” Jen says. “People asked me why I was still taking classes even though I didn’t need them, and it was because they were just so cool.”
Jen spent the next year taking classes in the ELC department. It started with a summer class taught by Leila Villaverde, which led to classes with Silvia Bettez, Rochelle Brock and Brian McGowan. “To have nothing but professors of color that entire year was astounding,” she says.
Bettez, whose classes include “Teaching Social Justice” and” Sociology of Education,” had a particularly significant impact on Jen’s time at UNCG — she describes the professor’s way of teaching as tough, but wrapped up in love and empathy. Bettez set the bar for how graduate students deserve to be treated and how they should treat each other, and pushed students to think on different layers and levels.
“Being in those classes, especially Dr. Bettez’s class, gave me insight into what my DEI business was missing,” Jen says. “I was like, oh — this is how to talk about DEI. This is what they mean by theoretical frameworks. This is how in-depth and nuanced the conversations should be.”
She attributes her preparedness for MSU’s PhD program to her time in Bettez’s classroom — and she wanted to make that opportunity possible for other graduate students. So in January 2021, Jen started the Pay It Forward Fund, which provides money specifically for Bettez’s program.
For many students, the monetary barrier standing in the way of their success may be only a few hundred dollars — $500 to present at a conference or $300 to buy books for research — especially if they are raising a family or commuting long distances. To Jen, it doesn’t matter how the students use the funding if it’s helping them in some way.
“I don’t want people to think they have to jump through hoops to get funding,” she says. “If one person needs it for food and gas, then they need it for food and gas. I’m not trying to gate-keep this money — I trust Dr. Bettez is going to know her students and what they need.”
In addition to the Pay It Forward Fund, Jen created the Jen and Carol Fry Endowed Graduate Scholarship in Cultural Foundations. She considers these gifts a small token of her appreciation, giving back to a program that means so much to her and helping those in need along the way.
“ELC is such a different bird,” Jen says. “The way everyone treats each other, the love and respect they have for each other, the understanding of what people are going through… . It’s so different from other people’s graduate experiences. The amount of empathy and love that the students have for the professors, for the program, for each other is just very unique.”
Learn more about Jen’s work at JenFryTalks.com.
Twitter & Instagram: @JenFryTalks
This donor story is part of Light the Way: the Campaign for Earned Achievement at UNC Greensboro.
Read about the School of Education’s funding priorities and make a contribution here.