KU WOMEN DISTINCTION
Jan Bowen Sheldon, Ph.D., J.D.
Professor, Applied Behavioral Science (formerly HDFL)
What led you to your area of study/field of interest?
Since I was a child, I knew that I wanted to be either a psychologist or an attorney. I dreamed of working with people and advocating for them, although, at the time, I did not know exactly what that meant. My vision was more clearly defined when I enrolled in an undergraduate honors course in HDFL. As part of this course, Professor John Wright had the students visit a number of sites off campus. One of these was the Kansas Neurological Institute (KNI) where children with severe developmental disabilities resided. This was my first exposure to children with disabilities and, at once, I knew that I wanted to work with this type of individual. Subsequently, when I was in graduate school, I was allowed to conduct my dissertation research at the KNI where I taught conversational speech to children who initially were unable to speak in complete sentences. While conducting this research, I fell in love with the children and youth with whom I was working. Although in love with them, I was not in love with the conditions that existed at the KNI. In many ways, it appeared that the children were housed in crowded environments that often smelled of urine, vomit, and feces, where there were few engaging activities and very little appropriate human contact. I strongly believed that these children had the right to live in smaller, more humane environments in the community. Thus, after finishing my Ph.D., I was fortunate to receive a post-doctoral fellowship from the Bureau of Child Research that allowed me to go to law school in order to pursue a law degree so that I could better advocate for dependent populations. It was in law school that I started working in the juvenile court and became interested in juvenile law. After completing law school and being admitted to the bar, I was hired as a faculty member here at KU, where I have been living my childhood dream to work with children, youth, families, and people with disabilities, to attempt to improve their lives and to advocate for them. Additionally, I have been given the wonderful opportunity to work with students and supportive colleagues, all of whom have continued to teach me throughout the years. I truly believe that I have had the best job I could ever have dreamed of having!
What honor, achievement or accomplishment is most meaningful to you? Why?
My most meaningful accomplishment is being a mother. While there are many areas in my professional life that have brought me much joy, none can compare with the pride I have in and the happiness I have been given by my children, including my two daughters, Jenna and Becca, stepdaughter, Jill, and stepson, Cris.
Who has been influential or had a significant impact on your life?
There are a number of people who have had a significant impact in my life. As I was growing up, my parents repeatedly told me that education was important and that I could become anything I desired. There was no distinction between what they told my brother and what they told my sister and me. Thus, I grew up in an environment where I was nurtured, supported, and encouraged to achieve my potential. Additionally, my older sister, Victoria Thomas, has always been a positive role model. Extremely intelligent and hard working, she set a high standard for me to attempt to emulate. She received her undergraduate degrees, Master’s, and law degree at KU and was the University’s General Counsel for over twenty years.
My family’s influence was reinforced and expanded when I entered KU as an undergraduate. I was fortunate to be in the HDFL department where there were a number of exceptional female professors who greatly influenced me. The Chair of the department was Dr. Frances Horowitz, an incredible teacher, researcher, and administrator. Dr. Judi LeBlanc and Alita Cooper were also outstanding educators. One professor in particular, Dr. Barbara Etzel, had a profound influence on me. I remember the first time I met her as an undergraduate student when she was a professor and Director of the Edna A. Hill Child Development Center. As a requirement for one of my honors classes, I observed her leading a research meeting with other professors and students. I was awe-struck by her professional demeanor, articulate and informative speech, and her ability to command the attention of everyone in the room. (I must admit that I also admired her stylish wool gabardine suit, silk blouse, and fashionable jewelry.) I knew immediately that I wanted to be just like her! Subsequently, I was fortunate to have her as a professor in the classroom where she challenged and motivated me. In our numerous conversations outside the classroom, she continually encouraged me to go to graduate school. She has served as a friend, role model, and an inspiration to me for thirty-five years.
My children have been an incredible influence in my life. From the moment they were born, my life was changed. They have taught me that the truly important things in life are found in human relationships, in time playing, sharing, talking, laughing, and crying together. And, finally, perhaps the most influential person in my life is my husband, friend, and colleague, Professor James Sherman. He has taught me, believed in me, challenged, supported, encouraged, and loved me. My life has clearly been enriched because of him and my children.
Why do you believe it is important to recognize women for their accomplishments?
It is important to recognize all people for their worthwhile accomplishments. Historically, however, men have received more public recognition than women. By publicly acknowledging women and their accomplishments, we not only reinforce women for their efforts but also let girls and young women know that there are numerous positive female role models and that a woman can achieve whatever goal to which she wishes to aspire.
What is your definition of success?
For me, success means making a difference in someone’s life--whether it be a student, a friend, a child, a youth, an elderly person, or a person with a disability. I will feel that my life has had meaning and that I have been successful if I have improved the quality of someone else’s life.
The Emily Taylor