“I’m Interested in Everything”: Jennifer Livengood on Lifelong Learning

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Breaking BarriersUnsung Women's Project

Welcome back to the third installment of our newest blog series: the Unsung Women’s Project! We’ll be highlighting amazing women in STEM, sharing the stories of all of the incredible, meaningful things women have done in their STEM careers that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.

Many consider Jennifer Livengood to be the next driving force in the instructional design and technology industry. From a professor in recreation and sport to an instructional designer, Jennifer’s non-traditional career path has led to many experiences that influence the work she does today. Her love for web development and technology started as a hobby that grew into an expanded skill set that she can use in her day to day work. She’s always finding ways to break the current barriers of technology while still maintaining a good sense of humor and enthusiasm in any situation. Jennifer currently works for Harvard Medical School as an instructional designer and teaches for Brandeis University’s Graduate Professional Studies and Shepherd University. She holds a master’s degree in Social Work and a PhD in Recreation, Sport and Tourism. 

Tell us a little bit about what you currently do.

I’m an instructional designer at Harvard Medical School. I work within the postgraduate medical education department, which is comprised of some people that have received their degree and some people who haven’t– so there’s a broad variety of medical related professions or students, people that take online and face-to-face courses to get their continuing medical education. I help the faculty build their online courses and coordinate the media. I’ve built websites here as well.

Their instructional design teams have two camps. There’s the theoretical, pedagogical side of it, and then there’s a technical side of it. This job is probably more into the technical side of things, with a little bit of the theoretical side, to make sure that our courses are educationally sound and deliver strong content.

How did your academic or childhood experiences prepare you for what you are doing now?

I’m interested in everything and have been since I was kid; I never really had one interest, so, I just did a lot of little things. When I was a kid, I loved bugs. When I was older, I really enjoyed my bicycle. I loved to read books. My mom actually wouldn’t let me play video games because she thought they would warp my brain, and so I had a billion books when I was a kid which gave me the chance to explore a lot of different interests.

I had parents who encouraged me to get an education. Initially, when I went to college, it was to be a Spanish teacher and I pursued that, then art, and then after art I found psychology, and after psychology, I found social work, and then after social work, I found recreation and leisure studies, and that’s what I got my doctorate in: recreation and sport management.

So there’s mainly just this undercurrent of “I’m interested in everything”! My current supervisor here at Harvard Medical School said that one of the reasons she wanted to interview me is because I was into so many different things and she thought that that would fit well with being an instructional designer– because you have to be interested in a lot of different topics. So that’s how I got into the field. I liked the ability to be involved in a lot of different areas, and I also loved technology, so it was a good mix.

Can you share a bit about what did your parents do?

My dad was a mechanic, and my mom worked as a healthcare technician. She would get people’s stress tests, so she would basically put them on the treadmill and watch their heart as they were trying to physically exert themselves.

Do you feel like their work ever also informed some interests in what you were doing?

The biggest influence they had on me was that they kept telling me to go out, explore, and learn, and because of that I was into everything. They encouraged me to read, to make art; to go outside and look at bugs.

What would you consider to be your “superpower”?

I learn things very quickly, and I think a lot of that has to come from my exploration as a kid and as a young adult, and having various different majors. I can usually pick up software faster than anything else, so usually if somebody wants me to train people on something, I just need one day in advance to figure out how to use it and then I can offer the training the next day. It’s just scary fast! I don’t know how it happens, it just happens.

Can you share what inspirations you had growing up?

I had a number of people that were very encouraging. I can remember a high school chemistry teacher, and I didn’t know very much about chemistry and I struggled with it, but one day I got an A on an exam and I could remember her just being so happy for me. That type of encouragement and inspiration just made me think, wow, maybe I can do this! I ended up taking college classes at 16. Being able to do really well in those initial classes was really nice. The teachers were amazing, because they knew I was 16 and that I was not the typical student.

Having those supportive professors was very encouraging to me as well. Currently, I have a very inspiring boss who teaches me how to better handle conflict. I moved past bumps in the road, and learned from my previous bosses, too. At Brandeis, and when I was a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), I  learned little tidbits of things that I would watch them do, or overhear them doing, and I would take those little tidbits with me. For example, my department chair at UNLV gave me some advice after I had to work with a difficult person. He said, “Don’t take those things personally.” He told me that I was probably not the first or last person that they would take issue with, and that they probably had a long line of people that hadn’t been happy to work with them. So I took little things like that, and kept thinking that, well, maybe if someday I ever find myself in a position where I’m supervising somebody, I’ll share these little tidbits.

How did you end up taking college courses at 16?

It happened because I was an only child, I lived in a very rural area in a town of only around 1200 people, and I get bored easily. I thought it would be fun to take a class just because I needed something to do, and my mom said, “you know, we can afford classes at the community college, all we need to do is sign you in,” and tuition was relatively cheap, so I just decided to go.

So you didn’t have to go through any sort of application process?

No, and that’s one thing I really liked about the community college framework, is that it seems like if you sign yourself up and you can pay the tuition, that they’re very accepting of people from different backgrounds. At the time, my parents didn’t have a ton of money, but they had enough money to send me to a community college class, and I felt that the classes had a very inclusive type of environment, which helped me really get my academic start.

Had you graduated high school at this point?

No, I was going part time [to college]. But I wasn’t really good at high school. I didn’t really like it. I learned later it was because I wasn’t challenged. So, the college classes provided that raised bar to where I could meet a challenge..

I ended up finishing high school  and graduating, but from all the work that I did during in high school, I was able to get my undergrad quickly. I was done really quickly and went for my masters, and I think I finished my masters around 22.

When did you receive  your doctorate?

I think it was somewhere around 25, 26, and that was when I took my first faculty job, which was odd because a lot of my students were my age. My first teaching position was at a community college, where I worked part time to fund my tuition.

Once I taught a class of nursing students, and one woman came up to me after class and said, “You’re too damn young. I have no idea what I’m going to learn from you.” So I said, “you know, what’s really neat about a classroom is that I can bring you what I know, but I think what really makes it a good experience is if you can bring me what you know”. And at the end of the semester, students were positive about their experience. So I’m thinking, whoa, thank God I didn’t mess this up! But it was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had.

In your “college career,” what was one really stand-out class or course you took? You mentioned that you had not been super challenged in high school, so I’m wondering if there’s any sort of class that really stood out to you?

The class where I met my dissertation advisor, during my social work program. I was about a year into the program and had decided I wasn’t very interested in social work, but it was only six months until I would get the degree– so I thought I would just stick it out, get the degree, and then do something else. I didn’t know what that “something else” was, but I had decided that social work wasn’t for me. I had to take an elective for the program to get the degree, so I decided to pick an elective in recreation and leisure because it was diversity-focused. That was my advisor’s research interest– leisure and diversity. When I met her and found out what she did, and how encouraging she was for me to apply to the PhD program, I felt like my world view of what I wanted to do changed. Before that, I’d never really thought that I was “doctorate material”– I thought that was just something that smart people did, and that I wasn’t in that group. But she really encouraged me to apply, and when I got in she was really instrumental in helping me through the entire doctorate process.

That is so interesting that you didn’t consider yourself smart.

It was a struggle to really consider myself capable and worthy of getting a PhD because I was shaky academically in high school and that kind of thing sticks in your head; it’s hard to get out of that socialization process that you had as a kid of, “Oh wow. I don’t know if that’s really me, because I’ve heard for so many years that it’s not,” and trying to dig that out and replace it with something that’s more accurate about myself was difficult.

Switching gears, do you have anyone who inspires you today, professionally?

I think it comes back to the little bits and pieces that I’ve taken from people in the past. My current boss and my previous two bosses, one at Brandeis and one I met at Six Red Marbles, they just were phenomenal people that I hope eventually I’ll be like when I grow up someday. I like the way that they viewed the world and the way that they handle conflict, and in general, the way that they work with other people– rolling with the punches, that kind of thing. So, I think if there’s some kind of sci-fi experiment where I could put all three of them together, that would be the best.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced– and hopefully overcome– whether professionally or personally, or both?

I think most of them involve personal challenges. Moving from faculty to an instructional designer is difficult. The transition from a 24/7 career where you’re constantly thinking about the work, when you’re at the grocery store buying your food for the week, you’re thinking, “I should really be home writing,” or, “I need to grade papers” is a completely different mindset from having a more traditional day job, with more balance, but yet my career isn’t as much of my identity as it once was. But, I feel I have a more of a holistic life now.

What would you say is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career so far to date?

I think being myself. I’m a very laughy, happy person, and I don’t make inappropriate jokes, but sometimes I will make jokes that totally fall flat, and I’ll  think they’re funny, but nobody else will think they’re funny. So, understanding that it’s okay to be myself has helped me a lot. It’s okay to laugh even if you’re the only person laughing, so I should just be comforted by who I am. Even if everyone else says I’m marching to my strange sounding instruments, I’ll just march along and I’ll carry my freak flag.

What would you consider are some of your triumphs?

Four years ago I learned how to ride a motorcycle. I just went out and I thought, “I’m going to take classes to learn how to ride.” Now, it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. I decided this summer I wanted to learn how to dirt bike, so I took a flat track racing course and I can’t wait to go back next year. I never thought riding a motorcycle in the mud could be so fun, but it was probably one of coolest things I’ve ever done. I took a class a couple weeks ago with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and we were flinging ourselves off hills, going into trails; I had trees hitting me in the face. It was the neatest thing. So I think that was probably one of the best feelings.

What does success mean to you?

I think success is anything that is true to yourself– anything that makes you feel authentically you. If you’re doing something and you feel genuine about yourself in the moment, that’s what I would call successful. I’ve certainly been in a lot of situations where I’ve had to pretend; where you have to look nice, you have to say nice things, and you have to play well with others… and it makes you feel funny in your skin, because you’re thinking, this really isn’t my thing, but I’ll go and do it just because I’m supporting somebody else. But then there are moments like when I’m out in a dirt bike, I’m covered in mud and I’m pretty sure that I smell, but I don’t care because this is what I love.

Tell us a little bit about something that keeps you up at night.

I tend to be a warrior about other people and want to make sure that they’re okay. I’ve found that I have a really good caring group of people here in the Boston area that I love to talk to and hang out with. So if there’s something not right with one of my friends, it feels like there’s something not right with me. Just making sure that I’m doing all I can to help out the people in my life is really important to me.

If you had three more hours in a day, how would you choose to spend it?

I think I would make things. I learned how to build a computer a couple of years back. I played with making Raspberry Pis. I’m currently trying to learn computer networking. It’s come with a lot of adult expletives, but I’m getting there! I’m currently researching how to set up a router and modem and get them secured, because I just recently found out that most of our routers, modems, and Wifi are extremely hackable. So, I’m currently looking how to secure my home life, but it involves a lot of terms; enough that I actually bought an IT dictionary because I got sick of looking it all up.

What do you geek out about?

It’s definitely riding my bike and learning about how to fix it. I bought a new sport bike– I never, ever, thought I would ride one of those sport bikes, because I’ve seen people ride them on the street, and on the highway, and they’re always going like a million miles an hour. And I’m thinking, “Oh man, they just seem nuts. They seem crazy!” …and now I’m one of those people riding a sport bike! I bought the 2000-something page service manual for it, and so I’m trying to figure out how to fix my own bike, and am getting used to where the engine and the clutch is, just so if there is a problem then I can see if I can fix it at home. In my spare time I’m reading service manuals for my motorcycle.

Why motorcycles?

I feel like I’m a sucker for anything that has a class. If they had a class on sticks, I’d probably take it and become a stick expert. I found out that there was a motorcycle class, and I thought, “oh cool, a motorcycle class, let’s take it.” So just because I saw a listing online and also had recently finished up watching a season of Sons of Anarchy and it looked really badass, I thought, “alright, there’s a class and it looked cool on TV! Okay, sure. Why not?” I think, I’d have to agree with one of my former art professors who said that he can relate a lot of who he is today by what he watched on TV.