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Oral History Interview with Janelle Harden

Date of Interview: October 31,2000
Location of Interview: Media Building at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg,Va
Interviewer: Susan Cook
Transcriber: Susan Cook

Part One

[Tape 1, Side 1]
Janelle as a cadet
Janelle Harden
member of the Corps of Cadets

Cook: Janelle, could you say your full name and your date of birth.

Harden: Janelle Torreè Harden, 1978.

Cook: Could you spell your middle name?

Harden: Torreè, accent on the last e.

Cook: Okay first I'd like to talk to you about where you're originally from.

Harden: San Antonio, Texas. I'm a long way from home. I was born into the Air Force. Both my parents are in the Air Force. My dad thirty years and my mom twenty. So, we were in San Antonio when I happened to be born then we moved three months after I was born and we've been moving ever since. In ninety-four, my father moved to Fairfax, Virginia and my mom and I stayed in Texas a little bit longer. Then we came up. I started high school in Texas. I graduated high school in Virginia and then came to college.

Cook: Wow, so you're use to all different kinds of situations.

Harden: Oh yes, all different.

Cook: So right before you came to Virginia Tech, you lived in Texas, I mean Fairfax?

Harden: Well, it's weird. I had a very weird college experience. I originally started college in Colorado Springs at the Air force Academy and then I came to Tech. So right before, I was in Colorado and then I came here.

Cook: How many years were you there?

Harden: In Colorado?

Cook: Yes.

Harden: It wasn't very long; it was only about three months.

Cook: Oh, okay.

Harden: I started school and I got really sick. Like my roommates had to wake me up to make sure I was still breathing and I came home.

Cook: What did you have?

Harden: The doctors still don't know. They couldn't figure out why I would just stop breathing.

Cook: And they never found out?

Harden: No. I had various asthma tests, all these physical tests and I passed all of them.

Cook: You're okay since then?

Harden: Yes.

Cook: What started you on your path to Virginia Tech?

Harden: My mother! [Laughter] My mother made me apply to Tech. I didn't want to come here because I wanted to go back to Texas or Georgia Tech or somewhere different. But I'm glad she made me apply because Tech holds your acceptance for a year. So when I got home I was able to call and say, "Can I get a room, any room?" So they had a room for me and I was able to come down and start school.

Cook: But, you had to recover first? When did you start at Tech?

Harden: I started in August and recovered.

Cook: I wanted to ask you for my purposes do you want to be called black or African American?

Harden: African American.

Cook: Could you tell me something about your family's history that you can remember? For instance just go back a little like to your grandparents.

Harden: Oh, grandparents?

Cook: Yes. That's a start.

Harden: Well that's interesting! I only know my grandmothers. I don't know my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather died when my father was sixteen so I didn't know him.

Cook: How did he die?

Harden: From what I was told, he was a truck driver and he died, I want to say, in an accident. I'm not quite sure of the details of the accident but he died. My maternal grandfather...I don't know anything about him. Supposedly, he lived in Baltimore and his sister called us and told us...well, she thinks that we're her family. I'm not quite sure we are. We still haven't figured out that relationship. But, we went to this man's funeral who was supposed to be our grandfather. I don't think he was because no one there looked like us! [Laughter]

Cook: Okay that's bizarre!

Harden: It is. None of them looked like us and they all had accents and we don't. So...

Cook: You're not really sure if that's your aunt?

Harden: Exactly. But that's interesting. My grandmother on my dad's side, so my paternal grandmother, lives in Florida. She's in Miami. My maternal grandmother died Good Friday, 1986 and she lived in Washington, D.C. I have a sister who is in Florida.

Cook: What does she do?

Harden: She works for a church. She does financial consulting for various churches in the Miami area.

Cook: Do you have brothers?

Harden: No, it's just the two of us.

Cook: Did your sister go to college, too?

Harden: No.

Cook: Is she younger or older than you?

Harden: Older. We're twelve years apart.

Cook: Oh that's a lot. You started to tell me about your mom and dad. They're both in the Air Force?

Harden: They're both retired now.

Cook: What did they do in the Air Force?

Harden: My dad was in nuclear weapons and my mom was a nurse.

Cook: A R.N.[Registered Nurse]?

Harden: Yes.

Cook: I don't know about any of the levels...

Harden: They're both Majors and actually my dad went through the enlisted ranks and then became an officer, which is unusual.

Cook: Did they go to college?

Harden: My dad did while he was in the service. My mom did right before she went into the service.

Cook: What schools did they go to?

Harden: My dad went to Whalen Baptist which is in Texas and my mom went to UT...well, she went to two schools. The first one was University of Maryland, College Park. That's where she did her undergrad. Then she did her graduate study at UT, Austin.

Cook: Wow! What were her degrees in?

Harden: Her undergraduate degree was in nursing from what I,m aware of. Then she got her doctorate at UT, Austin and her master's at UT, Austin. They are both in Gerontology.

Cook: I heard UT, Austin is a wonderful school. And your father, what was his degree in?

Harden: His degree is in Business, Business Administration.

Cook: That must have been an interesting life growing up with your parents in the Air Force.

Janelle Harden and Family
Janelle Harden and family

Harden: Yes. A lot of times with aunts, friends, lot of time with made up aunts!

Cook: Extended family?

Harden: Extended family. Yes.

Cook: So you grew up...since you grew up in a military environment, was it an integrated community?

Harden: Yes we lived all sorts of places.

Cook: Did you ever live out of the country?

Harden: Yes. We lived in Canada. I guess that's as far out of the country as I've been. My dad was in Turkey for a while. But, my mom and I...

Cook: That was before you were born?

Harden: No that was after I was born. My mom and I stayed where we were at the time and he left then came back and got us. We went to Canada. We've lived all over Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Portland, Oregon...I think I'm missing someplace.

Cook: When you were born and your mom...she was in the military at that they let mother's take a certain amount of time off?

Harden: I'm not sure how much time off she took, but she was able to take some time off and then I started going to a sitter.

Cook: This is kind of strange question, but I think it's very revealing. Who was your childhood hero?

Harden: [laughter]

Cook: It could be a person that you knew or you know... sports figure or a Hollywood film star or whatever.

Harden: Childhood hero? Gosh - because at different times I had different ones.

Cook: Well, just name a few.

Janelle Harden
Janelle Harden in her pre-Virginia Tech years

Harden: The earliest one I can remember was Mr. Snuffleupagus. That's the earliest one I can remember. And was never Barbie or anything because I use to pop her head off!


Cook: My sons swing her by the hair and then fling her!

Harden: Exactly! Then it became athletes like Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner Kersey. My mom and my dad have always been people I look up to. My cousin, Yolanda, was a big one especially coming through early teenage years, preteen years. She was a big one.

Cook: Why was she a hero too?

Harden: Because my sister and I were so far apart, my cousin, Yolanda, and I are only five years apart and we were able to do things together. She taught me a to wear clothes and do my hair, if I wore makeup, how to put it on, how to talk to boys.

Cook: Are you still close to her?

Harden: Yes, definitely.

Cook: That's a good answer...a hard one. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Harden: At first I wanted to be a lawyer and then I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was always changing. Finally, I got to engineering.

Cook: Is your family active in politics?

Harden: I would say my dad more than my mom. My dad is more outspoken then my mom is. So, you are going hear him talk about it more than my mom. My mom is the one who will stay up 'til one o'clock in the morning to watch the debate. But, my dad is the one who will actually get in a political debate with you.

Cook: You really answered this question, but I'll ask it one more time. Did you have any relatives that were major influences on you besides Yolanda?

Harden: mom has been a real big one because of growing up in D.C. and growing up in a single parent home with her and her sisters. I saw the sacrifice her sisters made so my mom could go to school. So from birth, she's always instilled in me, you have to have pride and education in the things that you do because not everyone gets that chance. So, she's always been big.

Cook: She was getting her Ph.D. when you were...?

Harden: When I was in the fourth and fifth grade. So when she would go to class, I would go to class with her. We would drive from San Antonio to Austin. We got into this little ritual. She'd pick me up, we'd go to McDonald's, get on the freeway and I'd sit in class and she'd sit in class. Then we'd do our homework together. Then we'd drive back that night!

Cook: That's wonderful. We need more women to do that type of stuff. Harden: She took a lot of time out, a lot of time out. The thing that I really liked about her is...whenever I hear women say (it's not an excuse or anything like that, I guess just different styles) - when I hear them talk about...well I had to give my child to my mom to take care of while I went to school or so on and so forth...that might have been great for you, it was probably what you needed to do, but I think my mom is extraordinary because she took me with her.

Cook: I do too!

Harden: She could have left me with a sitter or not gone to school at all. But she saw opportunities not only for her but what it would mean to me. She took me with her everywhere.

Cook: Which had to influence you.

Harden: Oh, yeah!

Cook: Also, we need professors that will allow that. I've seen professors that will.

Harden: Like when she went to Portland to do her research, I got to go with her. I got to visit the elderly people. I didn't do too much with them but we did exercises together.

Cook: You have a good woman for a mom.

Harden: I like her!

Cook: That's special. I think it's going to be very hard for you to explain this question...where did you go to high school? I guess pick one that was your major school.

Harden: I'll say my first high school, John Marshall in San Antonio. That was a big influence on me just because it was a mixed school, a very mixed school.

Cook: You mean all nationalities?

Harden: All nationalities. We had things weren't divided by color in this school. You were divided by the things you did. Like the track team hung out together; the football team, the basketball team. What we called the "kickers", which were all the cowboys and cowgirls.

Cook: I've never heard of that! [Laughter]

Harden: Yes that's how we were divided. In my high school, we had the Klan.

Cook: That was vocal?

Harden: They would write things on the wall and do things they weren't supposed to do. But luckily we were such a close-knit family, in terms of the African American community that the males in the groups looked out for the females. They would miss class to escort us to different places especially because they knew that the Klan was in the school. They knew that we would possibly get in trouble. But they would hope that we wouldn't; everyone hoped that we wouldn't but if we ever did, they would escort us to class or to our lockers.

Cook: But, still you have that fear?

Harden: Well, I don't know. My dad always taught me, don't react to the people who think with the wisdom of fools. So, I can't say I've ever been afraid of anyone. They didn't do...they never did anything harmful to a certain person. They would do things like rip up lockers or spray things on the wall, that sort of thing. I never saw or heard of anything they did like attacking someone.

Cook: Did they also pick far as what they sprayed...others, for instance, Asians or Mexicans?

Harden: Exactly, exactly and my first high school...well it was never found out who it was but then you could kind of narrow things down. I knew this one girl; she was raped in our auditorium. Like I said, you couldn't pinpoint who it was but you could narrow it down to certain people in the school.

Cook: Was she black?

Harden: No, she was actually mentally disabled.

Cook: So, they couldn't tell if it was KKK?

Harden: Right!

Cook: Wasn't Texas the state where the black man was dragged...?

Harden: Right, Jasper, Texas.

Cook: That's so horrible!

Harden: I guess because of that, it was a big influence on me in terms of who I was going to be...who I was going to establish myself to be. I was going to get an education regardless and go on to bigger and better things. If you all want to do crazy things, that's fine, it's just I have a goal in mind and I'm on this track and I'm going to stick to it.

Luckily, I had teachers and guidance counselors and so forth who since I was a freshman called me into their office and gave me little things to do. Like your assignment for the week is to look up one college in the career center and find out all you can about that school. That's how I got acclimated to looking up things about colleges and they had me writing a resume. I hadn't done anything but I'd write resumes about organizations I was in. They really got me into; this is the track you're going to be in. This is what you need to do to survive and to accomplish your goal.

Cook: That's wonderful. It's unusual, I think. Were they black or white?

Harden: No. All different races, just people who cared.

Cook: Male and female?

Harden: Yes.

Cook: My next question is what was your school life like but you've just explained that. Were there a lot of military children there?

Harden: There were. There were because San Antonio is a big military area with, I believe it was five bases. I believe they've closed one so now it's four but at the time there were five military bases in that area.

Cook: Did you play sports or have any extracurricular activities?

Harden: Track. I ran track for a while, played soccer, played volleyball. I was a youth leader at my church, so I did that, choir, clubs, multicultural club.

Cook: What did you run in track?

Harden: The 200 and 400 and I jumped and did the relays. We went all the way to state and when I came to Virginia my team went to Nationals.

Cook: I love track and field.

Harden: I had a lot of fun and met a lot of people.

Cook: Do you feel you had an adequate education in high school?

Harden: I do, I do. I think it's what you make of it. My first school I know I did - ever single class! My second school being in Virginia and maybe it was because I was new. I transferred in my junior year.

Cook: That's very hard.

Harden: It's hard to adjust. I spent a lot of time in the drafting lounge just because no one ever went in there so I could draw and do things and never be disturbed. I think the biggest difference was, in my first high school I couldn't miss class because teachers would come and find you. In my second school, I wouldn't go to class. I would spend two or three class periods in the drafting lounge and still get A's in my classes. So, it makes you wonder what the teachers are doing. Maybe they didn't care that you weren't there especially if I could still get an A. It wasn't like I was taking regular classes. I was taking AP classes and honors classes. I could still get an A and not be there.

Cook: That's more caring that they would come and hunt you down. Where was the second school, Northern Virginia?

Harden: Northern Virginia, Fairfax.

Cook: Was that a big one?

Harden: Not as big as my first school. My first school, gosh, we had an open campus and they kept the school at three thousand. It was a huge school. It really was. People would move into that district just so their children could go there. I know in my class when I came in we started off with a thousand. We are the class of 1996 and there are 800 just between the freshman and seniors. And when I came to Virginia, my graduating class was 375...small. I remember my first day; I was wandering around looking for the rest of the school because it was so small compared to my first school.

Cook: You may have said this already but could you say the name of both high schools.

Harden: The first one is John Marshall and the second one is W. T. Woodson.

Cook: When you moved into Fairfax, was that an integrated community as well?

Harden: No.

Cook: So the high school was predominantly black?

Harden: No predominantly white.

Cook: Oh, okay!

Harden: The area that we moved into was not integrated at all. [Laughter] I remember it was two weeks before I saw another African American. I ran up and I hugged him! I guess it was the area that we moved into. There just weren't a lot of...

Cook: Was this after your parents had retired?

Harden: My dad had, but my mom had not. She had transferred jobs. She wasn't active duty anymore. She was in the Reserves. So she was at NIH, National Institutes of Health.

Cook: She had to do that commute?

Harden: Oh yeah, 45 minutes to an hour.

Cook: So, your high school was white. Was it a high SES area?

Harden: Hmmm...I don't know.

Cook: I always hear that Northern know, there's so much money and the schools are so...

Harden: I don't know just because that stuff never interests me. So, I really don't know. I really didn't dig into it. There were a lot of Asians in the school and that was really different for me because I'd never seen that many before. Those were your two main cultural groups in the school.

Cook: While you were growing up, did you have both white and black friends?

Harden: Yes.

Cook: Or Asian or...

Harden: More white and black because in Texas there are not that many Asians.

Cook: In Texas, were there American Indians?

Harden: Yes, there were Native American issues.

Cook: How did you become interested in the Corps?

Harden: Coming from the Air Force Academy, when I came to Virginia Tech, I had a year in service so my freshman year, I was not in the Corps but I was on active duty because I had a year credited service from the Academy. So after that, you need to do something. So then I joined the Corps in my sophomore year and came through the Corps ranks. It was twofold. One, I wanted the Air Force career and two; they paid for me to go to school! It worked out for me.

Janelle in the airforce
Janelle Harden
Airforce Academy
Colorado springs.

Cook: What year are you in?

Harden: I'm in my senior year. I'm graduating in December, December 16th at 10 a.m.!

Cook: I know your parents will be excited. Tell me what your major is.

Harden: Mechanical engineering with a concentration in leadership.

Cook: What made you decide on mechanical engineering?

Harden: I started off in aerospace engineering and I wasn't happy at all. So, I switched. I actually had an internship and my internship caused me to switch because I saw that aerospace engineering was not what I wanted to do. So I switched to an ME internship and I liked that a lot more. I don't regret the decision at all.

Cook: Were you able to do the internship and still stay at Tech and be active?

Harden: Yes.

Cook: So, it was local?

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