Jenny Alexander Perseverance Fellowship: Supporting and honoring the power of tenacious PhD students

By Laurel White

Her son and his friends called her “Dr. J.”

It was a nod to the nickname of an all-star basketball player at the time, Julius Erving, but it was also an acknowledgement of Jenny Alexander’s incredible perseverance and achievement.

Alexander was a young, single mom in the 1970s who pushed through a lot of long odds to earn a PhD from the UW–Madison School of Education.

“Her experience shaped me as well,” says Alexander’s son, David Haskins. “When I encountered seemingly insurmountable challenges in my life, I would recall her perseverance.”

Jenny Alexander with her son, David Haskins, at Lake Geneva in 1979.
Jenny Alexander with her son, David Haskins, at Lake Geneva in 1979.

Born in Neenah, Wisconsin, in 1944, Jenny had David while pursuing her undergraduate degree at UW–La Crosse. Later, the duo moved to Madison, where Jenny pursued her master’s and PhD in educational psychology.

David recalls living in Eagle Heights student housing, and how his mother pinched pennies and pushed herself to meet the demands of the rigorous academic program.

“I remember her telling me the pressure she was feeling was growing by the day,” he says. “She explained to me that a PhD candidate only has a single go at passing — and all these years of struggle were on the line.”

Jenny received crucial support and encouragement from her program advisor, Professor Frank Farley.

According to David, Farley “always made time for my mom to assist her with the development of her dissertation” and provided “muchneeded motivational pep talks along the way.”

In the middle of her studies, Jenny and David moved for a year-and-a-half to Nashville, Tennessee, so Jenny could pursue a paid research opportunity at Vanderbilt University. David remembers that year in Tennessee as “the only time in my youth I recall having a bit of discretionary money.”

The duo moved back to Madison after about a year, and Jenny ultimately earned her PhD in 1981 — nine years after beginning her academic journey.

“I was absolutely ecstatic,” Haskins recalls. “It was also tinged with a bit of relief.”

Jenny Alexander and Aris Alexander
Jenny and Aris Alexander

The same year Jenny became “Dr. Jenny,” she wed Aris Alexander, a professor of psychiatry at UW–Madison whom she met in the course of her academic work.

Like Haskins, Alexander remembers vividly the dedication and tenacity Jenny brought to her studies.

“She persevered through many challenges and was especially grateful to all the people across the School of Education and Department of Educational Psychology who supported her,” Alexander says.

After their wedding, the Alexanders worked together at UW–Madison — Jenny as a research associate and instructor — until Aris’ retirement in 1991. After that, they moved to a ranch in central California.

Jenny died in 2009 after a recurrence of lymphoma that was first diagnosed in 1998.

In her honor, Aris has established the Jenny Alexander Perseverance Fellowship, which will back a PhD student in the Department of Educational Psychology. Aris says he prefers the department identify a student to receive the funding, with no application necessary.

“Over the years, I’ve become more aware of serendipity and how good fortune can change the arc of one’s life,” says Aris. “My hope is this support in Jenny’s name will help someone who is working hard and persevering.”

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