Theatre professor puts students first—and the students notice

Jennifer Vellenga, associate director in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, has been teaching at Kansas State since August 2011. (Sarah Millard | Collegian Media Group)

There is one thing that Jennifer Vellenga, associate director and professor of theatre, tells her students every year: theatre faculty has three priorities, in this order, when making decisions about students—their health, their family and their education.

“I want my students to remember that they’re enough,” Vellenga said. “Who they are as people is enough for whatever they want to do in their life.”

“We call her ‘mom’ because she’s always looking after everyone,” Ariana Dunlap, senior in environmental anthropology, said.

Vellenga got her start in theatre at a young age.

“I’ve always known what I’ve wanted to do,” she said. “When I was 11 years old, I saw in a newspaper ad that there was an audition for a community theatre production.”

Vallenga told her parents she wanted to try out, but she didn’t get cast. Soon after, that same community had a show called “Snow White Goes West.”

“I really wanted to be Snow White and I auditioned,” Vellenga said.

When she ended up with the role of Hank the Head Dwarf instead, she said she loved it and continued to do community theatre.

Vellenga grew up in Germany. During a trip to London, she said she got to see productions of “Jesus Christ Super Star” and “The Mousetrap.”

After 46 years, “The Mousetrap” is London’s longest-running play in the West End and is one of the reasons Vellenga said she knew she wanted to pursue theatre as a career.

“I was mesmerized by ‘The Mousetrap,’” Vellenga said. “I was like ‘oh my god’ because he pulls out a gun. I remember at four years old being like ‘there’s a gun. And he’s pointing it at that woman, but we’re all sitting here watching and they’re all reacting like it’s happening, but we’re not reacting.’”

The next step in pursuing a career in theatre was to attend Ohio University.

“I really wanted to go to Yale because Yale School of Drama is like the premier grad program for theatre,” Vallenga said.

At the time, Yale wasn’t offering any scholarships, so, Vellenga did research on where the largest concentration of Yale graduates taught.

“A whole bunch of my teachers at Ohio University went to Yale,” Vellenga said. “I knew I was getting the Yale training because that’s where they all learned.”

After Ohio, Vellenga and her husband looked for jobs near the east coast and Midwest because of family.

Vellenga got an interview at Kansas State, and the rest is history.

“I love K-State because of the students,” Vellenga said. “They’re eager to learn. We have an awesome program.”

Vellenga noted that several theatre faculty members are working professionals, some with Broadway, film and TV credits.

“We’re kind of a great little secret,” Vellenga said. “I don’t think people know how many credits our faculty have.”

In terms of teaching, Vellenga said she prefers a hands-on style.

“When people are excited in my class and invested, I can tell it’s working,” Vellenga said. “When they’re sitting back and yawning I’m like ‘everyone get up’ we’re moving over here.”

Despite her 17 years of teaching, Vellenga still gets nervous before a class.

“I go into every single class thinking, ‘I don’t know how to teach this class until I know who they are,’” she said. “I know the content. I can’t know the way I’m going to teach it until I see who the people are.”

As such, Vellenga said she tailors her classes toward the people, and her students notice.

“Jen gives her full attention and compassion to whatever she is doing,” said Chelsea Turner, senior in American ethnic studies and theatre. “The first thing she does upon entering our meetings is close her laptop, put her phone away, and says, ‘Alright, I’m yours. You have my attention.’ This small gesture is significant to us as students. Never once have I had a conversation with Jen where I did not feel like her number one priority.”

“They have everything it takes to do what they want to do, they just have to apply it and continue to learn,” Vellenga said. “To be lifelong learners and to know that whatever they want is already inside them.”