Jenny Chow Chiappe
Cal State LA doctoral graduate crosses long-awaited finish line
She plans to train new special education teachers and help underserved communities.
By Jillian Beck | Cal State LA News Service
Jenny Chow Chiappe likens pursuing a doctoral degree to running an ultramarathon.
These races, which are even longer than a marathon, test your endurance, resilience and determination—similar to weathering the grueling years leading up to a Ph.D.
Chiappe, a 34-year-old Lincoln Heights resident, once ran a 50-miler in the mountains of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. She had to navigate the route with only tags on trees marking the terrain. Her body fatigued. The end, at times, was nowhere in sight.
“Of course, you are anxiety-filled,” she recalls. “You don’t see the finish line until you get closer and closer and when you finish, it doesn’t really feel real. When you do cross, you’re delirious. I think that’s how I’m going to feel when I graduate.”
Chiappe culminated her educational journey on May 20. She graduated with a 3.9 GPA and a Doctor of Philosophy in Special Education. She is one of two graduates in the Class of 2019 who earned the degree, which is offered through the Cal State LA Charter College of Education/UCLA Joint Doctoral Program.
Chiappe grew up in Lincoln Heights, one of Los Angeles’ oldest neighborhoods, with her parents and two brothers. Her mother and father moved to the U.S. from Southern China seeking a better life for their children before they were born.
She traces the early origins of her passion for special education back to her childhood. She remembers sitting at a folding table in her grandmother’s living room at 11 years old, helping one of her younger relatives who had a learning disability. She’d use his favorite fruit, oranges, and toy cars to teach him how to count.
As an undergrad at UCLA, she found joy volunteering with toddlers in a local autism clinic’s early-intervention program, seeing the children’s faces light up when they first recognized the color blue or said, “Hi.”
“I enjoyed those little moments of the students making progress,” Chiappe recalls. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a special education teacher.”
Chiappe earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a concentration in developmental disabilities at UCLA. She is the first in her family to earn a college degree. She discovered an interest in research and thought of maybe one day pursuing a Ph.D. But that leg of her journey turned out to be a ways off.
While pursuing a master’s degree and teaching credential at Columbia Teachers College, Chiappe picked up running. In high school, she had tried and quit, unable to motivate herself to run more than six miles. This time, she laced up her shoes and hit the New York pavement and the miles quickly racked up.
Now she’s run the Los Angeles Marathon in 10 of the last 11 years and run a total of 13 marathons. For seven years, she ran with the LA Road Runners, the official training program for the Los Angeles Marathon, and served as a marathon pacer with the program for a year and a half.
After earning a master’s degree in intellectual disability and autism, Chiappe returned to Los Angeles and earned a California teaching credential from Cal State LA.
She started teaching kindergarteners and then third and fourth graders at Sheridan Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights. In the classroom, she used her experience with running as a way to inspire her students. “It was teaching them about perseverance,” she says. “Even though I gave up before, I came back and I tried it again.”
Chiappe pulled inspiration from her teaching experience when honing her focus in the doctoral program. For her dissertation, she conducted research exploring the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms and how teachers nationwide define and deal with bullying of special education students.
In her fifth year of teaching, Chiappe faced an unexpected detour. When her class didn’t have enough enrollment, she accepted a position at the school district supporting other teachers.
With an unclear path ahead, she remembered her professor’s advice. Years earlier, Cal State LA Professor Christina Kimm had encouraged Chiappe to consider a Ph.D. in the future. Now, the uphill climb of a doctoral program loomed ominously in front of her. What if I don’t pass the GRE? What if I start it and don’t like it and have to quit? I’m not a quitter.
Advice from Kimm kept Chiappe going: Take it one step at a time.
So, she did. Putting the proverbial one foot in front of the other, Chiappe began the program.
Other Cal State LA faculty, including Professor Lois Weinberg and Professor Emerita Mary Falvey, have been invaluable mentors during Chiappe’s time in the program, helping prepare her to teach new teachers and providing opportunities to join research projects. UCLA faculty Sandra Graham and Connie Kasari were also key supporters for Chiappe during her time in the joint doctoral program.
Chiappe received the 2015 Charter College of Education General Scholarship and doctoral funding through the U.S. Office of Special Education grant. She was selected as a UCLA Graduate Summer Research Mentorship Fellow in 2016 and 2017 and was part of a research team that won the 2016 UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Systems Research and Inquiry Conference Grand Prize.
Chiappe will begin working as a tenure-track assistant professor in special education at Cal State Dominguez Hills in the fall. She also wants to collaborate with community organizations to ensure that underserved communities have enough resources and access to services.
Chiappe plans to stay in the Los Angeles area, where she lives with her husband, Christian, a special education teacher, and their 16-month-old son, Christopher.
She’s hit the straightaway now—and she can feel herself closing in on her educational dream of 15 years.
“It’s been an amazing journey, with all of the people who supported me as an educator and encouraged me to go back to school, and my family and friends,” she says. “I feel like it’s this surreal moment and I have to keep pinching myself as if it’s not really happening—but it’s happening.”