Dr. Jenelle Pitt remembers sitting with her classmates one day in high school as everyone shared news about which colleges they had applied or been accepted to. She was in AP English at the time, and she proudly announced she had been accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. But just as her moment of pride began, she said, one of her peers responded, “Oh, they are just trying to fill their quota.”
That moment stuck with Pitt, whose parents were born in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a southern island in the Caribbean. Pitt and her brother were born in Toronto, Canada before the family moved to Los Angeles when she was 3 years old.
Today, Pitt is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education and Rehabilitation at Fresno State. She has dedicated her career and personal time to advocating for people “on the outside.”
Pitt said she has spent her life navigating the challenges of being on the outside. Still, she thrived academically from a young age and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Riverside and her master’s in rehabilitation counseling and Ph.D. in rehabilitation counselor education from Michigan State University.
At Fresno State, Pitt works with students who want to be counselors of all sorts — school/college counselors; marriage, child and family counselors; and rehabilitation and mental health counselors. She helps students understand how to assist individuals with disabilities and understand issues related to development, abuse and identity.
“With rehabilitation counseling, it is very much about people who are different, and this push against what is ‘normal,’ what might be considered abnormal,” Pitt said. “And as you layer on different social identities, disabilities, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and language, you might very quickly find yourself on the outside.”
Advocating in Fresno
Pitt has served on the City of Fresno’s Disability Advisory Commission since 2010, applying her knowledge and expertise in areas that directly impact the community.
The commission reports directly to the mayor of Fresno and provides recommendations and advice on city policies and procedures. “There are a lot of places in Fresno where the infrastructure isn’t where it needs to be,” Pitt said. “There have been a lot of opportunities to give input prior to things rolling out, like with the FresGo app, reconstruction with the Fresno airport and service animal areas.”
Pitt has served as chair, vice chair and now as commissioner, providing over a decade of service to the community.
“The disability community is already very intersectional, you have youth with disabilities, adults with disabilities, seniors with disabilities. Everybody is coming to the community with a specific race or ethnicity, so it really is an intersection,” Pitt said. “I feel that when I am advocating, it’s not just for the disability community but it’s an intersection of difference that tends to be oftentimes marginalized.”
Pitt also serves on the Fresno Unified School District African American Academic Acceleration Task Force. The task force works to find solutions on how to accelerate academic improvements for African American students.
Last year, the task force found that Fresno Unified’s African American students were in a state of emergency and called for immediate action. The African American suspension rate was twice as high as other student groups, test scores were not accelerating at the pace of other students, and the task force found issues in the district culture. For Pitt, this hit home. At the time, her 7-year-old son was enrolled in a Fresno Unified school.
“All children need to have access to quality features and to have opportunities and access to high levels of preparation,” Pitt said.
‘Things That Matter’
Earlier this year, Pitt received an email informing her that the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce were awarding her with the Things That Matter award. Not knowing she had been nominated, Pitt was shocked.
The award recognizes outstanding business professionals who exemplify mastery, leadership and knowledge. “Your commitment to the community and selflessness both in your profession and in your contributions to the community have proven this,” said Tara Lynn Gray, president and CEO of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce.
Along with being an associate professor, chair of a department, city commissioner, task force member and a mother, she still finds time to support Fresno State students outside of the classroom.
Pitt partners with the Fresno State Services for Students with Disabilities office and helps students find resources to assist them with their educational journey. She is able to apply her knowledge to situations and follows up with students at different stages of their journeys.
However, students don’t have to have a disability for Pitt to help guide them down the right path.
“I think about a lot of the students I’ve had the opportunity to advise, where they identify as black, Latino/Latina, Hmong, and just everything they are doing to make it to campus, to show up to class,” Pitt said. “It might not be that they have a disability or they have a diagnosis, but they need space to process. So being able to connect them with the Student Health and Counseling Center, maybe they just need someone to listen, someone to come up with some strategies when they go back home.”
Pitt has had to navigate different spaces from childhood to now and she echoes how important it is to have support. Pitt states that she is “passionate about things being different, period.”