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Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 83: Joanne Roehm

Joanne Roehm
Joanne Roehm
Joanne Roehm

Joanne Roehm is the director of Western Michigan University Grand Rapids. Joanne is our guest on this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk

Imagine a job change during a pandemic, shifting from a small nonprofit to academia all while continuing to practice the art of being a mom. Joanne Roehm is the director of Western Michigan University Grand Rapids and she joins Powerful Women: Let’s Talk today to discuss her journey to this point.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


>> Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: Imagine a job change during a pandemic shifting from a small nonprofit to academia. Plus, don't forget about practicing the art of momming. Does Joanne Roehm do it all?

We discuss her life journey thus far today and of course leading WMU in Grand Rapids in this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Hello to you Joanne.

Joanne Roehm: Hi!

Shelley Irwin: Yes there’s momming, there’s you know, a husband in there somewhere, there’s the dog and the cat.

Joanne Roehm: But, let’s be clear, I don’t do it all. None of us do.

Shelley Irwin: That was on my list. How do you do it all? We’ll get to that. So, a nice formal presentation, you do have a new fairly important job. Tell me about what's happening in your life now.

Joanne Roehm: Yeah. So, back in June I took on the role of director of Western Michigan University in Grand Rapids. So, we have a campus over on Ionia and I'm responsible for bringing a little bit of main campus here to Grand Rapids. I'm the regional representative for Western, running all of our building and program offerings here in Grand Rapids but, really creating and building on relationships with our community and making sure that Western and our faculty, are out engaging with the Grand Rapids community in any way that we can be.

Shelle Irwin: There is a personal side to this. What, 3 times the charm when it comes to you and your Bronco relationship?

Joanne Roehm: I'm going for that trifecta of degrees. Yes. So, currently my undergrad and masters are from Western.

Shelley Irwin: And how much does that affect where that takes you professionally? You must have an allegiance, which is a positive thing.

Joanne Roehm: Most certainly I mean, I you know, hold the institution near and dear because I've spent so much time at Western and when I was looking to make a change having a level of familiarity, especially after being with my prior organization for so long, made that change a little easier, it felt more accessible to make that big change in my life because I had that familiarity with Western and it was something I was already passionate about.

Shelley Iwin: So how do you go from a job where laughing is important from Gilda’s Club a former a role you played to well, academia during a pandemic? What were some key steps here?

Joanne Roehm: Believe it or not, laughing is important in academia too, we can’t take ourselves too seriously. I had been with Gilda’s Club for, you know, almost 12 years and it had been time

for me to take the next step in my professional career and so, you know, navigating the pandemic and all that happened with that, I certainly didn't plan on making a change during a pandemic, but I had planned on making a change and exploring that next chapter and I

had the luxury of time and kind of seeing what was out there. I had always had an interest in higher ed. I’m a school nerd, I like that environment. So, when this opportunity presented itself, it felt like a good fit on a few different levels.

Shelley Irwin: So take me back to the planning as a young Joanne, did you plan to have a career and an opportunity to be a mom, a wife and an animal owner?

Joanne Roehm: Yeah. I mean, I think I had loose plans to not do it all but, kind of do it all if I could do whatever I could. I don't know that I had a clear path of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I can’t you know pinpoint any specific career I wanted to head into but, I can't deny that I liked being the one calling the shots growing up even with friends and my poor brother. You know, I was the one with the plan and I liked that for sure.

Shelley Irwin: Were you the firstborn?

Joanne Roehm: Yeah, haha.

Shelley Iwrin: There we go, that’s a whole other conversation. Let's talk about in general taking a risk, which you might have taken a risk with what you just did and obviously it's working.

Joanne Roehm: It certainly felt like a risk again because I was really comfy with where

I was at. I mean, I loved Gilda’s club and I still love Gillda’s club and always will but, it had become I mean, I had gotten to a point where I have sorta done everything I could there. In a small organization there’s not a ton of opportunities to kind of move up the ranks and I believe too that it’s really important that not only we continue to challenge ourselves but, that we create sustainability within organizations as leaders by proactively making those changes.

Someone else needed to kind of take the helm at the laugh fest. I had done what I think has some really good work there and I knew that it was time to move on but, just because I knew didn’t make it easy. It did feel very risky and I spent lot of times walking circles around Reeds Lake with friends having discussions about what could be next for me and what if it wasn't a perfect fit and some really good advice I got during that time was that it doesn't have to be perfect, the first step is just making a change, just taking that risk and you can adjust from there.

Shelley Irwin: Let me talk to you about reaching out and having friends to talk to. How important is that as we get older or even when we’re younger? It’s important to find a support system.

Joanne Roehm: I think for those of us that can have the privilege of saying what we learned from the pandemic, relationships matter. Maybe we knew that before but, I think we really know that now and who you choose to spend your time with and what you take away from those relationships is really important. I’m not the kind of person that has a wide wide circle of friends. I certainly know like a lot of good relationships, I know a lot of people but, my inner circle is pretty small and having people who can give you truthful feedback even if it's not what you want to hear is really important. And so as I you know, was on this process of searching for what my next professional step would be, having those people to kind of guide me and counsel me was really important and having mentors as well, having other women leaders in our community that I had meaningful trusting relationships with who could help say things to me like “you just got to make the change, it doesn't have to be perfect,” was critical in getting me to that next step but, it really was the pandemic I think that gave me that extra little push to make that change.

Shelley Irwin: How did you develop and what are your leadership traits?

Joanne Roehm: That's a tough and broad question but, I believe as leaders that our responsibility is to surround ourselves with a team that compliments us. So, I like to lead collaboratively. I have no interest in being the only one that makes decisions or is part of a conversation. So, collaboration is a big core tenant for me as it relates to leadership.

Assuming the best, which can sometimes be difficult as the leader looking around you and recognizing that we're all doing the best that we can and that may look different on any given day. I try really hard to see the best in those around me and lead from that perspective as well and I also believe in leading and learning. None of us are perfect, none of us know everything there is to know and creating a culture of learning is super important to me as a leader.

Shelley Irwin: Tell me more about, well reaching for a PHD, with the many other hats

you're wearing. How does that work?

Joanne Roehm: That's always been on my bucket list. I mean, I have always wanted to teach college. I don't need my PHD to be an adjunct faculty member but, I've always liked the idea of being a doctor and so in my move to Western professionally, it was a natural opportunity for me to then start pursuing that degree. I thought I was going to wait a little while and then sort of add it in later and then an opportunity presented itself to get going on that pretty quickly.

So here I am, closing in on the first year of my doctorate and hoping to get that done in about 3 years, we’ll see how it goes.

Shelley Irwin: You’re a goal achiever. You’re also involved in your community and understand the importance of wellness. Tell me about your relationship with girls on the run.

Joanne Roehm: Yeah, an organization that I've been involved with for a long time.

First, as a coach. I had the opportunity to coach in the Northeast school district for many seasons and just loved being able to be alongside girls at that age. By the time we move into true middle and high school years, a lot is set about how we view ourselves, how we respond to other people so being able to spend time with girls at such a young age, that's really formative time for them and it was a really fun way to kind of give back and literally run, or walk, or skip, or jump alongside them in their journey. From that, my husband and I have sat on the committee for the celebration 5K for a number of years. In fact, I had my son on celebration 5K morning in 2017, I did not make it to the race that day.

Shelley Irwin: Good excuse.

Joanne Roehm: But, was planning on it. Thank you, but we you know, so we have a lot to celebrate when that weekend comes around each year and then I was a board member for a number of years and served as board president and was able to help the organization navigate its transition between 2 wonderful leaders and Lori Burgess the outgoing executive director and Lisa coming in and that was a really wonderful experience as well as another very formative time for the organization.

Shelley Irwin: Sweet! All right, more fun facts. What, you move to the United States from England?

Joanne Roehm: Yeah. When I was in 8th grade, my parents let me now that we were moving to another country. Which as an 8th grade girl, I did not make it easy for them in that transition but, my dad got a great professional opportunity and so we came here at the tail end of my 8th grade year and so I am of British descent, I am not a US citizen.

Shelley Irwin: I mean, do you speak?

Joanne Roehm: English?

Shelley Irwin: Yes you spoke English but, uh.

Joanne Roehm: But, I think what was really interesting is that I dropped the accent really fast.

Shelley Irwin: That’s where I was going.

Joanne Roehm: It made me really insecure in 8th grade as we tend to be at that time in our lives. I have a theater background, my whole family has a theater background and so it's very easy for me to just lose that accent pretty quickly there. Don't know that I'm super proud of that but, that's the way that it was.

Shelley Irwin: Very interesting. What about this American idol audition here? My friend.

Joanne Roehm: Yeah, so shortly after college, my undergrad is in music, I had this idea and

American idol was peak craze at that time and a girlfriend and I a flew to Minneapolis to the auditions at the Target Center and tens and thousands of people were auditioning. I mean, it was a wild experience. Obviously I didn't make it on the show, but it was really fun and a fun thing to say that you did.

Shelley Irwin: Yes but, with your resume at present and a music degree, tell me more here.

Joanne Roehm: Well, I'm a generalist through and through, I learned that at some point, relatively recently, maybe within the last 10 years that I've embraced that I kind of felt like I was a jack of all trades master of none for a long time and I’ve sort of flipped that narrative around.

I like to dabble in a lot of things. I do best when I've got a lot of irons in the fire. I like to touch a lot of different things. I don't necessarily want to be in the detail of everything. I'm the one that likes to come in, make the plan, make the broad strategy and then move out of the way and so all of these different things that I've done both in my education and my career and you know what Gilda’s Club Laugh Fest was another example of that. I've had the opportunity to dabble in a lot of different things and project manage a lot of different types of things and that's a skill set that I'm really well-suited to.

Shelley Irwin: So you can sing us a song. There we go, it's not the list. You're raising a son. How will you raise him to advocate for women?

Joanne Roehm: I think a lot of what we do at home is modeling in our family what equal relationships look like between men and women. We try very hard to ungender things in our home. We are 50/50 parents and partners in all the things. So, you know, in raising my son, he sees my husband, the chef and mom pulling some late nights of work and vice versa depending on the week and I think it's really important that we model what we want to see in people to our kiddo's and when I first got involved with girls on the run. I didn't have Aden that as I became pregnant with him and then had a son, Girls on The Run sort of became more important to me because I want my son to see what we're doing to raise strong and empowered girls and women and that he knows that we need to respect all people, all kinds, all the time and that's really important. So I don't claim to be an expert in raising sons by any stretch but, I think the best we can do is model who, you know, the behavior that we want to see and have conversations even if they’re difficult.

Shelley Irwin: And what is left on that bucket list?

Joanne Roehm: That's a great question.

Shelley Irwin: You’ve checked off a couple things already.

Joanne Roehm: Well, you know, working in higher ed has certainly been one of those and I'm so early in the journey of that I mentioned I would like to teach and I’m working on that PHD but, it's such an interesting time to be in higher ed right now, so many changes happening that I'm excited to see where that journey takes me. I have always wanted to be an executive director of a nonprofit organization that is certainly something that could still happen but, I've also tried to soften up that bucket list in some way and get the planning side of me to relax a little bit and just be open to whatever that next step might be professionally, personally, and otherwise. I look forward to maybe getting some more sleep as my child continues to age. Can we put that on the bucket list?

Shelley Irwin: Yeah. Get your 8 hours and then you'll be able to do it all. That's the secret.

Joanne Roehm: We’ll see.

Shelley Irwin: Any good books you're reading?

Joanne Roehm: You know, I don't get to read as much as I used to but, I always come back to

Quiet by Susan Cain. It really helped me better understand myself and my personality. I always sort of peg myself as an extravort but, I found myself as I got older, not feeling quite as extroverted as I used to and I actually am one of those people who I can do it, I can be out there doing the things, talking to people but, I need that down time. I’m sort of that high functioning introvert but, I think is how it was described and the book just really made a lot of sense to me and helped me in another way decipher who I am and what I need.

Shelley Irwin: Alright, we'll give you some time, get you back and call you Professor Roehm. How is that?

Joanne Roehm: Love it.

Shelley Irwin: Congratulations on your success because you are doing it all. Thank you for talking to us on this edition of Powerful Women, Let’s Talk Joanne.

Joanne Roehm: Thank you for having me.


>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.
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