A Community of Lifelong Learners

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Faculty & Staff Stories in Fine Print, the Magazine of Rowland Hall

Rowland Hall Director of Equity and Inclusion Dr. Chandani Patel with students in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Dr. Chandani Patel wasn’t looking for a new job when she learned that Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City was searching for its first director of equity and inclusion. But when a recruiter sent her the posting, she found her interest piqued.

At the time, Chandani was director for global diversity education at New York University, a challenging and rewarding role that she had no immediate plans to vacate. However, as she read Rowland Hall’s position statement, Chandani was surprised to find herself contemplating a move: not only did Rowland Hall demonstrate a long-term commitment to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work she’s dedicated her career to, but the school greatly emphasized community—a value that had risen in importance to her family after nearly a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the New Jersey/New York area, we did not have much community at all, really, because we were far from our workplaces—everyone commutes,” explained Chandani. “The pandemic really shifted our priorities. We didn't feel embedded in a community, and we really wanted that.”

As Chandani and her husband, English teacher Dr. Brady Smith, discussed the Rowland Hall opportunity, they realized that Salt Lake City may be just the place to grow the community connections they craved, both for themselves and for their young daughter, Aashna, then four years old. The location worked both personally—Chandani already had a sister in Salt Lake, her parents were willing to relocate, and Brady’s parents live in nearby Colorado—and professionally: Salt Lake’s size and growth opportunities, including the ability to build partnerships in the DEI space, greatly appealed to the two academics-turned-educators. Furthermore, Rowland Hall serves a student population that, after more than a decade in higher education, Chandani felt pulled toward.

“I had been thinking about transitioning to PreK–12 education for a couple of years,” she said, “because I was starting to see key challenges in higher education: a lot of the unlearning that folks were engaged in as adult learners needed to have happened a little earlier in their lives.” In other words, Chandani had been observing students entering college classrooms with little to no experience engaging with those whose backgrounds or beliefs differ from their own, and it had become clear to her that students need earlier opportunities to practice navigating conflict and building trust across their differences.

“The world is, in many ways, super interconnected, yet we continue to be siloed; we continue to see patterns of kids only hanging out with kids who look like them or like the same things,” explained Chandani. “Research backs this up, even from—or maybe especially from—a racial identity standpoint.”

School Today: What’s It For?

As Rowland Hall’s inaugural director of equity and inclusion, Chandani is now playing a role in building the collaboration skills that today’s students will need in college classrooms and beyond. But even though preparing students to respectfully handle tough conversations, particularly with those who have differing opinions, in today’s world is of vital importance, she explained, it still often isn’t a priority in PreK–12 schools.

“In many schools, those are not the skills educators are explicitly talking about or helping students learn,” said Chandani, “yet in every single industry, the first thing that any hiring committee will ask about is collaboration skills or a time you encountered and navigated a conflict.”

And employers need staff members who work well with others. Many cite so-called soft skills—such as teamwork and collaboration, leadership, critical thinking, and communication—as areas they most desire in new hires. And it isn’t just day-to-day business tasks that benefit from these skills; the most pressing problems we now face—the ones today’s students will help find solutions to, including inequality, climate change, and a global pandemic—can only be solved by coming together.

“Students have inherited a whole lot of problems that require really creative and out-of-the-box solutions; we have to imagine different possibilities to build a different and better world,” said Chandani. PreK–12 schools offer ideal environments in which students can safely learn how to build relationships, practice collaboration, and navigate conflict—which, Chandani pointed out, is a helpful life tool.

Schools are now the places where students should acquire and practice human-centered skills that machines can’t replicate—like teamwork, curiosity, judgment, and creativity—and where they learn what to do with all the information available at their fingertips.

“We need to help students understand that when conflict arises, you don't back away from it but embrace it, so that you can learn something new—maybe about yourself, maybe about the other person, maybe about that issue, maybe about the world,” she explained. “If that process can happen at a younger age, then we have many more opportunities for students to practice, and to understand how to work across their differences.”

For some, this can be an unfamiliar perspective: we haven’t often thought of PreK–12 schools in that way. But just as twenty-first century employers have been rethinking the skills employees need to succeed, so too should educators be rethinking the role twenty-first century schools play in student success.

“School is no longer a place to just learn facts and information—we have that available to us on the internet,” said Chandani. Instead, she explained, schools are now the places where students should acquire and practice human-centered skills that machines can’t replicate—like teamwork, curiosity, judgment, and creativity—and where they learn what to do with all the information available at their fingertips.

Dr. Chandani Patel with a student in her Salt Lake City Lincoln Street Campus office.

Chandani's role allows her to focus on helping Rowland Hall students learn how to thrive and connect in our rapidly changing and diverse world. “We need to embrace our differences and know that we're not always going to agree exactly on an issue,” she said. “But, together, we can make the world a different place, a better place for all of us.”

Creating Student Leaders

For a DEI professional like Chandani, refocusing the role schools play as we look to the future is important in enhancing students’ learning experiences, especially as they participate in current conversations around equity and inclusion. By emphasizing human-centered skills alongside traditional academic subjects, students are better able to see the humanity behind their studies, building a stronger understanding of our collective history and how it shaped, and shapes, our daily lives. Examining diverse lived experiences in an English class, for instance, or learning about the contributions of historically underrepresented groups to the sciences helps students understand cultural contexts, while engaging in classroom discussions helps students learn to express themselves, make connections, and practice respectful disagreement.

By emphasizing human-centered skills alongside traditional academic subjects, students are better able to see the humanity behind their studies, building a stronger understanding of our collective history and how it shaped, and shapes, our daily lives.

“It’s important for them to recognize that even if we have a lot of shared experiences and shared identities, we're still not going to always agree—and that's not a bad thing: that means you always have something to learn from each other,” said Chandani. This applies to educators, too, who help solidify these skills by modeling what it means to learn from others. “My goal,” said Chandani, “is to help students learn how to facilitate conversations, navigate conflict, and build a collaborative process.”

Importantly, this focus on building human-centered skills in the classroom should be viewed as an enhancement to learning—not something that comes at the expense of the academic rigor we expect from schools—because it enriches learning, helping to develop lifelong thinkers who can ask thoughtful questions to build their understanding of the world, their place in it, and their role in creating knowledge and change.

“Our students want to have hard conversations, and we want them to have the tools to ask questions of the world,” explained Chandani. “We're not in the business of making any student feel bad or responsible for something that's way bigger than them—that is not how learning happens. The goal is to give students tools to ask questions around why things are the way they are and how they might be different in the future so that everyone can thrive.”

These actions benefit students in other ways too: as we emphasize human-centered skills, we show the value of all lived experiences, giving students a deeper sense of belonging to their school communities. And as they feel that belonging—and their confidence grows—students are more likely to speak up, to take action, and to believe in their own ability to make change.

“I'm really invested in the idea that every single one of our students is a leader,” said Chandani. “And we need to cultivate that sense of leadership.”

Dr. Chandani Patel with a group of Salt Lake City high school students.

Chandani's office on the Lincoln Street Campus supports student growth too: she views it as a community space where students can gather to practice connection and leadership skills, or simply hang out or do homework. “Space is really important, especially for students who don't feel well-represented,” she explained. “It's a huge part of how they come to think about school.” 

Looking Ahead

For Chandani, building leaders doesn’t stop at students—in fact, she said, one of the most exciting things about joining Rowland Hall is discovering the community’s collective commitment toward lifelong learning and making the school a welcoming place for all.

Rowland Hall has been doing this for over a decade. This is a community that really does care for each other, that really does want to do the hard work, because everyone is in the space of wanting to learn.—Dr. Chandani Patel, director of equity and inclusion

“Rowland Hall has been doing this for over a decade,” said Chandani. “This is a community that really does care for each other, that really does want to do the hard work, because everyone is in the space of wanting to learn.”

As she continues to settle into the school community—now her family’s community—Chandani is committed to involving all stakeholders, including families, in supporting their students as well as in navigating their own learning journeys, and she’ll be engaging various groups in conversation to identify the top challenges, opportunities, and questions that will inform Rowland Hall’s DEI work in the coming years.

“I'm invested in learning from a diverse array of folks,” she said.

And because Chandani knows that it will take time to get to know the entire community, she’s also committed to providing ongoing updates on what she’s learning and what families can expect from her, beginning with a community forum tentatively scheduled for February.

“I want to talk with the community about what I'm learning, answer questions, and really make sure the work that I'm doing is transparent. This is not work done in secret; it’s shared work that is always going to be important to talk about and make visible,” said Chandani with a smile. “There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, and we have a really great opportunity to build on that momentum.”

Equity & Inclusion

Banner featuring Chandani Patel, Director of Equity and Inclusion

Following a four-month national search, Rowland Hall is excited to announce that Dr. Chandani Patel will take the reins on July 1 as our first director of equity and inclusion.

Chandani (pronounced ChAHn-dhuh-nee) has spent the last 10 years advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives across a number of institutions. For the past 18 months, she has served as the director for global diversity education for New York University (NYU), where she provides strategic direction and works with faculty on curriculum and instruction that is centered in DEI. Before that, she was senior assistant director at Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, where she developed pedagogical workshops and online resources to support instructors in creating inclusive classroom spaces. 

Chandani Patel with husband Brady and daughter Aashna.

  Chandani Patel with husband Brady and daughter Aashna.

“I believe deeply in relationship building across a community,” Chandani said. “I look forward to being part of a community where all voices are represented so that we can work towards building an inclusive teaching and learning environment for all students, faculty, staff, and families.”

Chandani has taught and written extensively on how concepts of race, identity, and belonging shift across places, languages, and cultures. She holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, where she studied comparative literature with a focus on South Asian and African literatures. She also holds a BA in comparative literature and an MA in humanities and social thought, both from NYU.

Our search for a director of equity and inclusion began in mid-November, following the announcement of a $2.4 million donation from the Cumming Family Foundation to create the first endowed position in school history. Former head of school Alan Sparrow, who retired last June, worked closely with the Cumming family to articulate our DEI vision and secure the gift, which ensures we have a permanent, full-time leader to guide us in this important work. At a time when pivotal conversations about racial justice are occurring across the nation, we’re so grateful to the Cummings for their generosity and leadership. Their gift supports our core value of welcoming everyone, elevates our institutional commitment to DEI, and sets a precedent for schools in Utah and beyond.

Rowland Hall is forever grateful for the Cumming Family Foundation's $2.4 million gift to create the school's first endowed role, ensuring we have a permanent leader to guide us in this important work.

To ensure an effective search, Rowland Hall partnered with StratéGenius, a Berkeley-based firm with extensive experience cultivating, recruiting, and placing educators in DEI leadership positions at independent schools. Indeed, the process moved along efficiently and transparently: by the first week of March, school community members had a chance to virtually chat with and provide feedback on three finalists. According to our search committee—co-chaired by Head of School Mick Gee and Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman—Chandani rose to the top for our community due to her expertise, professionalism, sincere approachability, and willingness to dig deep in this important role. 

“The search committee was drawn to Chandani’s focus on building communities of belonging where members feel safe to learn and grow together,” Mick said. Chandani, in turn, said she’s excited to discover areas of growth within Rowland Hall where she can center equity in conversations and support inclusive dialogue.

Chandani will relocate to Salt Lake City this summer with husband Brady Smith, daughter Aashna (age 4), and dog Maddy. Chandani’s parents, Vaishali and Sanjay, will also be relocating to the area. Please join us in welcoming Chandani and her family to Rowland Hall!

Equity & Inclusion

You Belong at Rowland Hall