The importance and life-changing power of education was instilled early in Alena Zachery-Ross ’95, the daughter of an educator who instilled the same belief in her own children, Cordell and Lena, both of whom are Grand Valley alumni.
Zachery-Ross, who grew up in Detroit, went on to dedicate her career to educating others. She served in positions including classroom teacher, school psychologist, teacher consultant, principal and assistant superintendent. She has been superintendent of Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System and Okemos Public Schools and currently leads Ypsilanti Community Schools.
Throughout her career, Zachery-Ross has maintained strong ties to Grand Valley, where she said she was encouraged to grow while also receiving strong support as a mother finishing her degree. She serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors and also established the Alena E. Zachery-Ross ’95 and Quinton Ross Muskegon Heights Scholarship to reduce financial pressure on students and their families. She is working to expand the reach of the scholarship to help more underserved students in a similar demographic.
She’s a proud Laker for a Lifetime and an advocate for lifelong learning.
Why did you choose to go into education?
My mother was a teacher in Detroit Public Schools. And I loved the opportunities to work with the students in her classroom over the years and see the camaraderie she had with her colleagues and feeling like you’re giving and serving other people. I’ve admired that about her and she inspired me.
What encouraged you to pursue the special education field?
When I was working in my mother’s classroom, I was drawn to those students who had the most need. I saw their hearts. I saw that they had energy and wanted to do well, they just needed additional assistance. And I felt like I could provide that. I had the patience and wanted to be able to see the impact. Sometimes in education, you don’t see the impact for a long time, but with that demographic, every day you can see progress.
There’s obviously a generational importance of education in your family. Please expand on that.
My grandparents only had elementary school education. They wanted their children to have more because they saw those who had a degree were able to accomplish more, were able to make a difference and progress, especially in terms of finances and of the salary they could obtain. So, they made sure that my mother and her siblings were able to go to college, the first generation to do so.
Once you have obtained your degree, no one can take that away. You can take away a job. You can take away a career, yet with education, no one can take it away. It doesn’t matter where people came from, what background they had, what race, what gender. That’s the one thing that can equalize everything — education.
Tell me about the importance of lifelong learning for you and how it has shaped your life.
One of the great slogans at Grand Valley is being a Laker for a Lifetime, because it’s insinuating that you’re connected to education for life. And so for me, I knew I wanted to go to college. My mother had gone to college. She had her master’s degree and I saw that as giving an opportunity, especially for women.
On top of it, with the intersectionality of being a Black woman, I felt like education would get me through the door, would help prepare me to have these opportunities that I couldn’t have without an education. Coming to Grand Valley, I was part of an atmosphere where it was wonderful to learn. You could grow your leadership through sororities and fraternities, through classes and experiential learning.
That love for learning just never stopped. And it has been the thing that has opened doors for me. I just graduated with a doctoral degree (from Michigan State University) and even upon graduating, people have said, “Oh, can you co-author this book?” There are so many opportunities that happen with education.
How do you approach a day at work and how has that evolved as you have gained more experience?
When I was a teacher, I came to work with my mind on changing the world. I had these big lofty goals about what I could do in my classroom. And now as I have grown in leadership, I understand that I’m just here to serve. And I know a lot less than I thought I knew, I have a lot less power than I thought I had, and I know and recognize that every single decision impacts others.
What has Grand Valley meant to you and how has it remained a part of your life?
Grand Valley was my extended family just when I became an adult. And it has meant everything to me. It provided me with many core principles that I’ve needed to navigate through this professional world. It gave me so many leadership experiences that (I didn’t know then) would make such a difference today.
I’m so grateful and that’s why I keep in touch by being on the Alumni Board of Directors, being an Alumni champion, being an Alumni ambassador, supporting the College of Education alumni and the Honors College alumni. I established a scholarship because someone else gave me a scholarship and I want to give back to the place that helped give me that foundation and a great starting point.