Home Editor's Picks “It Takes A Village”: How Danielle Epps Has Become Her Students’ Biggest Supporters

“It Takes A Village”: How Danielle Epps Has Become Her Students’ Biggest Supporters

by Sal DiMaggio

Lit by a single lamp on her desk, Danielle Epps’s office is a cozy and inviting space, warmed by a tungsten light. Tucked away on the third floor of University Hall, many students have knocked on her door and sat down at the round table in the corner, telling her about their day or asking her for advice.

Epps’s wall is filled with photos of her and her loved ones, as well as signs honoring her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. Also on her wall are her bachelor’s and master’s degrees: reminders to the students who walk into the office that anything is possible.

Epps is the director of teacher education admissions, recruitment and diversity at Montclair State University. She is also the advisor to the collection of E3 organizations that serve the brown and Black communities on campus. Epps advises the Xi Iota chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority on campus, which she has been a part of since she was an undergrad in 2002.

Even though Epps serves many roles on campus, her purpose is not fully shown through her titles. Epps’s focus is to bring out the best in the students she interacts with.

“There is never a dull day,” Epps said. “It’s always interesting. It’s always fun.” “But it’s also great to see when the learning happens. You see the students develop and grow. You see the small wins and then the big wins and how they are more encouraged and aspire to keep doing more.”

Epps’s story starts in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she grew up as an only child for most of her life. As she grew up, she recognized how important the people around her were.

“I’m very much an example of ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and I had a lot of people who were there to help and support me from basketball coaches, guidance counselors [and] teachers who are all a part of that village outside of my immediate family,” Epps said.

Without her village, Epps said, she would not be where she is today. She recalled a specific instance where she ran into a dean at Kean University, her undergraduate school, that left a lasting impression on her.

“I was dressed very casually, kind of like I rolled out of bed,” Epps said. “And [the dean] very much reminded me about the importance of how you put yourself together.”

“I vowed that he would never see me that way again, and he didn’t,” Epps said. “And every time I will see him I’m like, ‘Look!’”

Now, as a faculty member at Montclair State, Epps works to be a part of her students’ villages and push them to their full potential.

Janicxa Kernaghan, a senior psychology student, met Epps when she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter on campus. Their relationship developed as Kernaghan rose to president of the chapter as well as vice president of the Xi iota chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, Epps’s sorority.

Kernaghan recalled when she hit a low point in her college career and was considering stepping down from her roles on campus. It was Epps who guided her through the storm and saw that she made it out the other end.

“I remember I went to [Epps’s] office, and I just felt defeated at that point,” Kernaghan said. “And I was ready to just really just give up, I just didn’t want to do anything anymore. And she stopped everything she was doing. [The] phone [was] ringing, [but she wasn’t] answering, she closed the door, everything. And she did not get back to anything she was doing until she made sure I left her office okay. And even after that, she was constantly checking up on me.”

In her role as advisor, Epps draws on her experiences from growing up in Atlantic City to connect with her students, many of whom come from situations similar to the one she grew up in.

“I grew up in an urban city,” Epps said. “Sometimes that comes with different challenges, but also that comes with a lot of benefits too, [like] certain aspects of resilience. All of those things are aspects that I received in my upbringing that I translate to understand and connect with the students that I work with. Whether we have the same upbringing or [we have] differences, [I try] to find certain things that are parallel, that maybe connect us, that I can relate to [and] to help them also see I’m not just an advisor and administrator, but I’m also a person with a story too.”

For her students, Epps represents what students of color can achieve. Jordan Hedgeman, senior English student and the president of Montclair State’s Future Teachers of Color program, has developed a personal connection with Epps throughout her time at Montclair State and looks up to Epps.

“I think for all of us, she embodies a lot of what we need to be: successful, educated, kind, loving, well-connected and most importantly genuine,” Hedgeman said.

Epps was able to fully see the product of the work she does with students when she traveled with the Black Student Union on their recent trip to Washington, D.C.

“[The trip] was something that I had a conversation with them about, and to see the idea implemented and then see it all the way through was a great thing because it also was great to see how they lit up and were excited to see something that was just a thought become an actuality,” Epps said. “There are so many moments where I think about how people gave me those same moments, [and now] I’m doing that for other young people.”

Hedgeman said Epps embodies what E3 organizations represent and inspires students through her work.

“In a world where they tell us our options of what we can be when we’re older is slim to none, she is beyond that,” Hedgeman said. “Her quality of education, her ability to educate, and I think also her work-life balance.”

For Epps, being a part of her students’ villages is more than just being an authority figure, she also gets to know them on a personal level.

“I think I try to relate [to my students by] being myself, stripping it down more than just the title that’s on a business card, but also being Ms. Epps and being certain aspects of Danielle that they get to know and get to see the person,” Epps said.

Epps has reached her students in many ways, whether it is dressing up and attending the Black Student Union’s Harvest Ball with them or simply talking on the phone with them about their lives.

“I’ll just call her up sometimes,” Kernaghan said. “Or she’ll just call me randomly, and we’ll just start having a conversation about whatever, or there’ll be times we’ll get on the phone to talk about something specifically. And now we’re on the phone for one [or] two hours, talking about whatever or just enjoying the silence. Those are my favorite moments.”

Whether giving students support for their organizations or talking with them on the phone for hours, Epps will always look to be a part of their village, just as she had when she was their age. And when asked herself how she does it, she gives a response that any student today might give.

“What do you mean? I’m lit.”

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