“If what we are doing is gathering and creating knowledge then that should be used to help people – otherwise, what’s the point?” Ethnic and gender studies professor, Dr. Jess Birch, said.
The back of her office was lined with bookshelves, each book with its unique purpose. A couch sat in the back of the room, a place where she said students often come to relax, trying to escape from the “whirlwind” of college. Her desk was neat with only a few papers. Beside her, a basket full of candy that was nearly full. Birch sat at her desk, wearing a dress and combat boots. Her curly dark brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her arms were filled with tattoos with different meanings.
Dr. Jess Birch lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, up until the seventh grade, which can be visibly seen from her Pittsburgh Steelers tattoo on her arm. From Pittsburgh, her family moved to South Bend, Indiana.
“I was a good student because it was easier than not being a good student,” Birch said. “My brother was good at sports. I was good at standardized tests.”
Her strength in testing gave the impression that college had to be an obvious choice, she said. Birch tested into college, majoring in English, with junior level credits at the University of Pittsburgh. Later, Birch said she began to wonder if college was the place for her.
“I worked various terrible jobs for a while,” Birch said, explaining her career path after dropping out of the University of Pittsburgh after her first year.
She worked full-time at an attorney who specialized in social security disability. Birch said she watched many homeless individuals get turned down because of their lack of employment.
“I was going home on a Friday, crying, because I knew I had to go back on Monday and I was like, I’m doing this from the wrong end. There is no way I can make anything genuinely different at this end, so I finished my undergrad degree while I was still working full time,” she said.
She finished her degree and received a master’s degree in English at Indiana University South Bend, finishing her student career at Purdue University, receiving her doctorate in American Studies.
Dr. Susana Peña, director of the School of Cultural and Critical Studies, said Birch is committed to her students.
“She thinks very deeply and very passionately about student needs and advocating for students. I think she is the perfect director for the learning community,” Pena said. “Students are her top priority. She is willing to take risks for students with their interests in mind.”
“I wanted to stay in the rust belt area — this is my home. Our students here are people who by and large grew up in ways similar to the way I did, in places how I did. They are people I understand and care about,” Birch said, explaining how she arrived at the University.
Second year political science student Hallie Cunningham said she believes Birch creates an accepting environment for everyone.
“Creating a comfortable learning environment isn’t easy, especially at a university, but she exceeds that expectation. When I got the email about joining the learning community, I was ecstatic,” Cunningham said.
Dr. Birch helped create and currently serves as the faculty director of the Finding Your Voice in Social Justice Learning Community. The learning community was established last year as a way to communicate ways to advocate for social justice issues, Birch said.
“We were having a discussion about what we could do to make our students from underrepresented first-generation backgrounds more successful at Bowling Green,” Birch said. “I am concerned with the isolation people often experience because even though Bowling Green’s student population is pretty similar in terms of economic background, there can be a pretty big difference there – especially for first generation college students. There are a lot of things no one ever tells you – you’re just supposed to know.”
Birch said she believes social justice is connected to teaching. Most professors in academia see the “ivory tower” as a positive thing, Birch said.
“I have never wanted that. Those are barriers that should not exist, so if you see your tower as valuable, then you will always be a gatekeeper. Even for people who recognize inequality, they only want to do those things for people who are worthwhile – it’s not opening the gates or getting rid of the gates,” Birch said.