Driven by their passion for education, two alums found more than a place to grow their knowledge at Erickson Hall
By Marco Schimizzi
“It’s been a winding path, but a good one,” said Chris Thelen-Creps, a 2020 Ph.D. graduate of the Education Policy program.
While serving as a full-time AmeriCorps service member in Washington, D.C., following her undergraduate degree, Chris developed a passion for helping adults attain their educational goals – namely for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
That experience led to an interest in education policy and, after completing her master’s degree, she chose the College of Education as the place to pursue her doctoral dreams.
“During the search process, I was interested in high quality programs that had an exceptional reputation,” said Chris, who benefited greatly from academic scholarships and funding from the college’s Department of Educational Administration.
Her dissertation examined how interdistrict school choice policies in Michigan impact different communities, specifically looking at access and equity issues within the policies. In what is considered a widely debated topic, she argues, through research, that the way policies are written and implemented in Michigan ultimately disadvantage the groups they intended to help.
She also researched the effects of school choice policy in metro Detroit.
“What I found through previous research with faculty at MSU is that districts where many students leave are harmed because it reduces funding available to the district. In Michigan, when a student transfers schools, their funding also transfers,” she continued. “We’ve seen this [as education policy researchers] in many urban-suburban adjacent districts throughout Michigan.”
The Education Policy Ph.D. program provided a wide breadth of educational topics for Chris to explore, which in turn helped narrow her interests. “I was able to take classes in teacher education, theory courses and worked with faculty members who policy students wouldn’t typically work with. Everyone was very open to me pursuing that path,” she said.
One of those people was Professor and Associate Dean for the Graduate School Terah Venzant-Chambers, who supported Chris both while she was a student, and now in her current role as a policy and outreach coordinator with University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA).
“Terah and I had lots of overlapping interests in areas like equity, supporting students of color and anti-racist research, and I admire how active she is in the community,” Chris continued. “She’s a past president of UCEA and has helped me understand my role as I’ve been working with the organization. She’s a fun, positive, spirited person who has a strong commitment to educational leadership preparation.”
Now in her third year at UCEA, which is housed at the College of Education, Chris has found deep purpose in her work through policy writing, research, managing grants and a host of other duties.
“I’m amazed all the time at how well we [UCEA staff] work together as a team and I think part of it is happenstance, but part of it stems from leadership,” she said. “Our Executive Director Mónica Byrne-Jiménez has worked really hard to build and maintain a positive work culture where everyone is able to pursue their own interests and work on their skill development.”
KARENANNA BOYLE CREPS
Raised in a household that revered them, Assistant Professor Karenanna Boyle Creps’s passion for the fine, performing and culinary arts has always been central to her identity.
From studying ballet, oboe, English horn, piano, photography, art history and theater across her childhood and adolescence to earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre Performance-Acting and a Bachelor of Arts in Arts and Ideas in the Humanities at the University of Michigan, her educational experiences have had a profound impact on her career.
“I’ve studied the arts, in one form or another, my whole life. They’ve always been there,” said Karenanna, who began integrating the arts into her teaching long before she learned the term arts integration — an approach to education that combines arts-based learning with traditional academic subjects.
After college, Karenanna taught as an assistante d’anglais (English language teaching assistant) through the French Ministry of Education. She supported the English language education of French public school students, aged 4-22, frequently incorporating the fine and performing arts into the lessons she taught. She subsequently worked for The Experiment in International Living (EIL), and spent two summers leading a theater and French language immersion program for high school students in France.
During the school year, EIL sent her to a wide variety of high schools on the East Coast and across the Midwest, to speak with teachers and students about EIL’s programs. She became fascinated with the wide variety of school cultures, resources and learning environments she saw in the United States. She continued her education with a master’s degree in Theatre Education, and later, her Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education (CITE) at MSU.
Karenanna used her knowledge in the arts and humanities as a launching pad for her dissertation research on two study abroad programs she designed and led for incoming students in Spain and Italy.
“In Spain, I had students focus on tensions between ideas about global citizenship and local contexts. We studied the cultures of the Catalan population around Barcelona and the Basque population around Bilbao,” she explained. “The second program examined the arts across Italian history. We visited Florence and Rome and visited ancient sights like Ostia Antica and Pompeii.”
Beyond advising and educating Karenanna during her Ph.D. program, College of Education faculty supported her during a dark time. In 2015, Karenanna was involved in a life-altering car crash.
Her gradual recovery from the crash slowed her academic and career trajectory. During that time, faculty in the Department of Teacher Education, along with various support resources across the university, played a significant role in her successful completion of her doctoral degree and the start of her academic career.
“I had to fight for appropriate medical care every step of the way, and the CITE faculty never lost faith in me,” she said. “The university did a great deal to provide resources and support to help me recover.”
Following the completion of her dissertation, Karenanna became an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Teacher Education. She is the subject area leader of arts integration in the Elementary Education program and the licensure area leader for K-12 visual arts education. She supervises seven courses in the department, teaching various combinations of them every year.
I so deeply admire the impactful work that Karenanna does for the College of Education. She is the most talented, passionate and compassionate teacher that I’ve ever known.– Chris Thelen-Creps
Now in her eleventh year at the college, Karenanna shares a special appreciation for her former Professors Lynn Fendler, Avner Segall and Associate Professor Janine Certo, who helped shape her identity as both a scholar and an individual.
“I asked Avner to hood me at commencement because his courses fundamentally changed the way I think,” she recalled. “His courses brought so much more delight into my scholarship. He taught me that everything in the world can be educative.”
Karenanna’s advisor, Janine Certo, also participated in her doctoral hooding.
“She [Certo] taught me that my artistic voice is relevant and a valuable contribution to the discourse,” said Karenanna. “She was so gentle and supportive of what I brought to the table as an educator and artist.”
PH.D. IN YOU AND ME
As if by fate, Professor Emerita Lynn Fendler’s Critical Studies Reading Group brought Chris and Karenanna together for the first time in 2017. A mutual friend introduced them and suggested: “You should meet and get coffee. I think you’d get along really well.”
Their shared interests in education and fascination with each other’s work made for an immediate connection.
What began as a friendly introduction flourished into romance.
“Something that’s really wonderful about my relationship with her is that I didn’t expect my life to turn out this way, and that has been so great,” said Chris. “We both try to live our lives being really open to experiences. I feel like there are so many examples you see in Hollywood where friends end up falling in love. It feels like a fairy tale story, but it happened to us.”
The two exchanged vows on July 21, 2021, at Zingerman’s Cornman Farms in Dexter, Michigan. Their wedding ceremony was an intimate gathering with their parents, with the added honor of Karenanna’s stepfather serving as the officiant.
Just under a year after their wedding, Karenanna and Chris experienced the profound joy of welcoming their son, Jesse, into the world. The journey of parenthood has been immensely fulfilling for them.
“Jesse brings so much laughter into our lives. Being a first-time parent has taught me valuable lessons in patience and has encouraged me to embrace a slower pace,” said Chris. “Through his exploration of the world, I feel like I’m re-learning it with him. As an educator, making all those connections all the time has been a treat.”
Simply put, Chris finished by saying, “Because of the College of Education, I have a job, a house, a wife, a dog, a career, a baby and a degree.”