Faculty Voices: Dr. Kendra Abel
Educating educators is what Dr. Kendra Abel, assistant professor of elementary, middle level, and secondary education, takes pride in at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. However, her journey
to this role was anything but ordinary.
“I did not have the traditional route to becoming an educator. I didn’t have the undergraduate courses, the bachelor’s degree in education, but I had the heart and willingness to do whatever it took,” said Abel with a grin.
The Stigler, Oklahoma, native graduated from Stigler High School not only as a proud Panther but as a Gates Millennium Scholar (GMS) with a future wide open. Abel chose to stay close to home, the GMS program providing an opportunity for her, as a member of the Choctaw Nation, to receive significant financial aid to attend and graduate from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in studio art.
But her education didn’t stop there.
“I applied to a few different programs and even an art education program at Harvard because that had been a lifelong dream to have a degree from an Ivy League school,” Abel recalled. And to her astonishment, Harvard accepted her.
Abel had been accepted into the art therapy master’s program at Florida State University, and she deferred that to move to Massachusetts for the one-year Master of Education program at Harvard. From there, her path toward education began to take shape.
After attending Harvard, Abel’s love of teaching blossomed, and a move to Tallahassee for art therapy, she says, didn’t feel quite right. So, she returned home and applied for the doctoral program at OU in Educational Studies to continue where she left off after leaving Harvard.
She completed her required coursework and applied to Teach for America – a prestigious nonprofit organization, that accepts fewer than 15 percent of applicants, with a commitment to helping students in communities that lack resources and schools that are not equipped to meet the needs of all children.
“I taught summer school and created lesson plans and got feedback in real-time,” said Abel. “I was able to develop my skills as an educator in my pursuit of ensuring all students had access to a high-quality education.”
Combining her two passions, art and teaching, Abel became a K-12 art educator throughout Oklahoma. Additionally, she taught art appreciation online as an Oklahoma City Community College adjunct instructor. Little did she know that would prepare her for the effects of a virus that spread around the globe.
Abel was already a seasoned online teacher when the COVID-19 pandemic altered the traditional classroom landscape. She was able to use this time to retool her curriculum for the 2020-2021 academic year and prepare not only her students but herself for a safe return to the classroom.
“In 2017, I was diagnosed with a one-inch hole in my heart,” she explained. Doctors could close the hole by inserting a mesh device, but this wasn’t the only underlying health factor for Abel.
Born with Holt-Oram syndrome, a disorder that causes bone abnormalities in the arms and hands and often leads to heart problems. Not one to let it hold her back, Abel calls it “being differently abled,” which has led to a lifetime of finding ways to adapt.
Abel says she is proud of how she adapted to teaching art online while working for the community college and how that prepared her to do the same with her K-12 students amid the pandemic. Her resilient adaptability led Abel to UAFS in August of 2021.
As a Choctaw citizen, Abel has connected to more Indigenous students through the Native American Student Association and in the classroom at UAFS.
“I always try to tell them it’s not too late to invest in their culture and identity,” Abel said proudly. “It’s something I always try to support.”
UAFS has given Abel more opportunities to share that support of Indigenous people back home. “Thinking about rural communities in Oklahoma, especially those who may be underserved in having that representation of teachers to meet the same demographic of students is important to me. It’s one of the pursuits I’ll eventually take on,” said Abel.
Being a Choctaw educator is something that also connects Abel to her family. Her father worked 40 years for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, even spending some of that time teaching bachelor-level courses to prisoners, and it has become a new passion for Abel to share the stories of Choctaw elders who were previously educators.
“How you support the next generation is incredibly important,” she said. “One of my native beliefs is seven generations: What do you do today, and how is that action going to impact seven generations in the future? It’s that ripple effect to shape hundreds of lives that makes me want to give my best at all times.”