Karintha Fenley wore a multitude of hats before finding her way to academic advising. She worked in construction, IT support, sales, credit and billing; she served her way through her master’s degree, as a graduate student by day and cocktail waitress on the Strip by night. When she finally landed in her role as an academic advisor for the College of Urban Affairs, for the first time, it felt like the perfect fit.
Fenley sees herself in the students she works with — the new parents, the graveyard shift workers, the military families — and brings in her own life experiences into her approach to advising.
“My favorite things about Karintha are her kindness, empathy, and willingness to help a student no matter what situation they’re in,” said Kei Chua, a recent Urban Affairs graduate. “She really goes the extra mile to make sure we’re prepared and confident in the big life decisions we’re making. I’m not sure if I would have graduated on time without her.”
In addition to being a beloved advisor, Fenley is a multimedia journalist and advocate for families impacted by police homicide. A graduate of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, Fenley pursued her master’s thesis juxtaposing the contrasting media and personal narratives surrounding the case of Rex Wilson, a local Native American man who was killed in 2016 by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Her work with the Forced Trajectory Project focuses on the media narratives surrounding police violence and the impacts experienced by the families of those lost to police homicide.
What brought you to UNLV?
I did my bachelor's degree at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I lived in Pittsburgh for about a year afterward. I started my career in higher education by working for Carnegie Mellon during that time and then moved out to Las Vegas.
I ended up kind of lost during that time period. I didn't really know what I wanted to do after college. I had a degree in marketing and cultural studies that I had no idea what to do with, so I ended up in construction, I worked in IT for a while, I worked in sales and credit. I got laid off because of the recession while I was working in construction. I was working as a wireless telecom specialist at that time. Then I ended up moving on to MGM resorts and I was working in their hotel sales and marketing, thinking, “Let me see what this looks like in terms of future career, maybe marketing.”
I could have very easily transitioned into some really great jobs there within hospitality and sales and marketing, but it just wasn't my cup of tea. I ended up in HR for a while, working in learning and development for MGM for Mandalay Bay.
Then, in order for me to be able to go to graduate school during the day, I had to have a job that was going to allow me to pay my bills and allow me the flexibility of hours. So I worked as a cocktail server at Mandalay Bay for several years, working graveyard while I was taking classes during the day and trying not to fall asleep in them.
At a certain point, I realized I wanted to go to school full time and become a graduate assistant. That was what led me to a career in academic advising. I became an academic advisor as a graduate assistant because I wanted the pay and I wanted the tuition benefit, but I ended up falling in love with my job. A full-time position became available while I was still in the middle of finishing my degree, but I was like, let me talk to my boss and see if this is something worth it to pursue. And she supported me in it. They definitely have a very thorough interview process, but I ultimately got it. Needless to say, my boss and my students are very happy that I stayed.
What drew you to becoming an academic advisor?
It's one of those things where I feel like I finally found the job I was supposed to do. I get to be a part of students' journeys in terms of helping them to achieve their personal and professional and academic goals.
This is one of the very few jobs that you can take on in which you feel like you have so much impact that you can actually see. You can help that student that's on suspension or probation really turn it around and graduate. With all the different situations that are thrown at me, I will do everything I can to help students. If they let me know what they need and they're honest with me, I will give them everything I can in terms of the advice and support that they need to be able to stay on track to graduate, and also to give them helpful advice for how to move forward beyond that, because that's important too.
What are some of the ways you’ve had to adapt in advising students virtually?
I really miss being in the office with students. I miss that one-on-one connection you have when you're sitting across from somebody and there's an energy there. This sounds like such a vampire thing to say, but I do consider myself to be an empath, and I'm in a helping profession, so when someone comes into my office with really great energy, that brightens my day. I miss being able to hug my students. I miss sitting down across from them and their excitement about what they're going to do with their degrees and the programs they're applying to, or the opportunities they're taking advantage of.
I also miss the students that maybe haven't done well in the past and are bringing themselves out of some really terrible situations, and coming into my office and telling me how wonderful they're doing now. It's something different to talk to a student who was already struggling and maybe just got themselves off of academic probation or suspension. It's a different conversation when you have it over the phone or remotely versus having that in my office; I think you feel the impact of it more.
As far as availability, I do feel like in a way…we're more available now. In the past, I think in-person appointments were so popular that sometimes it was a little bit more difficult to get ahold of us and get an appointment. Now I feel like my schedule has been more open, even in the busy periods. That is a good thing because it allows us to be a lot more flexible with scheduling calls with students.
What have your conversations with students been like as they’re adapting to this new normal?
There are so many other factors involved in this semester that have never been present before. The main challenge for first-year students seems to be time management. How do I get the most out of my classes? A lot of them are wondering, “How do I do well in my classes and stay on track with assignments and everything that's required?”
Whether you're in your first year or not, I definitely recommend the Academic Success Center. They have coaches available for you to work with to plan everything out for your semester. They have resources available like time management workshops. If you can, carve out that space in your house that's just yours, where you can shut the door, because it helps so much for you to be able to focus and concentrate and schedule that time for yourself. A lot of my students miss in-person classes, but some of them are finding that they were scared to take online classes before, and this has forced them out of their comfort zone.
What's it like to be a new mother of twins and working remotely? Advice for parents in similar situations?
It's a constant balancing act. I had the boys for a few hours this morning by myself and I'm juggling being in a staff meeting, changing diapers, and getting on a phone appointment with a student at 10 a.m., praying for the boys to nap.
But it has also been nice because it's a point where I can relate to student-parents. If they hear one of my babies crying in the background, a lot of times students are very understanding. But it has not been easy, raising two little boys who are under the age of one. I've had a lot of support from my family, my husband especially. He was out of work for a bit and mommy had to become the breadwinner all of a sudden. I’ve been working from home Monday through Friday from 9-5, so he stepped in and took on a lot of that care during the day. And then, of course, I'd be there in the evenings, but even that sometimes was difficult.
When you're working from home, there's still this pressure to fill an eight-hour day, so if I get caught up with something to do with my kids, then I’m answering emails at seven or eight o'clock at night. And that’s hard because then I'm sacrificing my family time to do that. So there is this temptation to put a lot of pressure on yourself, working remotely, whereas if I'm in the office, I can just leave at five and I'm done. That whole kind of work/life/home balance is completely disrupted right now.
Something that I've been working personally on is to set up boundaries — like "Today I'm going to get done with this. There's a form I need to review for this student. I'm going to do this tomorrow and work with her on it" — versus trying to cram so much in one day because you feel all this pressure to be productive.
They really make it worth it. Even for my own mental health. A lot of students are going through so much right now. Whether it’s financially, or with their family situations, there are all these different factors that are impacting students right now, and I'm the one that they're talking to about all these things because it's impacting their grades and their college lives. So when I'm having a particularly heavy conversation, it's nice after I get off the phone, to go and grab one of my kids and let them smile at me for five minutes. They give me a sense of like, "This is why you're doing it, Mommy. You're doing it for us."
Tell me about your work as a multimedia journalist.
The work has not stopped, if anything it has increased. So even though my [part] has most certainly reduced, Nissa Tzun and her partner, Oja (Vincent), are the founders of the Forced Trajectory Project and they are continuing on with that work. They continue to meet with folks who have been impacted by either personal encounters with Metro or Henderson PD or different police representatives who have been hurt or lost loved ones.
When I graduated in May of 2019, I was four months pregnant with my guys, and was working full time while also finishing my thesis, which was an incredibly arduous process. I was able to work with Greg Miller, who is an amazing journalism professor. He really helped me shape this narrative that I worked on for my thesis. I did a nontraditional thesis project as a long-form narrative article, and I essentially worked on different perspectives of this one particular case. I looked at it from the perspective of a family who lost a loved one, what that meant to them as a family, (and) how their loved one was portrayed by the media and how they felt about it. I also looked at the police department’s narrative. They came out with an official report. It was very much publicized and local media reported on it.
Then I looked at the media's perspective. I interviewed a local television news representative who was an anchor. He told me that if you're reporting on crime, you need to establish good relationships with the police department. But how do you maintain that when you're also reporting on incidents that are involving them as being the ones that caused the fatality? That's where things get tricky. I think that a lot of local journalists are put in this bind. You can't really report objectively in that situation. A lot of them just kind of take what the police department gives them and spew it out to the public because a lot of them don't have the resources and the staffing to do further investigations the way they should in these cases. A good case in point was the one I focused on for my thesis, which was the case of Rex Wilson, a Native American man who was killed in October of 2016 by the LVMPD.
My issue with the negative national news media narrative is that there's this whole narrative out there of Black men being killed by police, so human lives are being shown as expendable, and that's problematic. But it's not just Black men who are dying or being victimized. This kind of violence is not something that is just impacting one community — it’s impacting all of us. And that message needs to be put out there more. If you actually want to look at the history of police violence and fatalities, Native Americans are the ones that were impacted the most, and they are marginally invisible in the national news media narratives. Why aren't we talking about the issues that they have with law enforcement?
What I would urge people to do is if they want to find out more (is) to go to websites, like Forced Trajectory Project. I also wanted to say, don't just look at the national cases and think, "Oh, that's not happening in my backyard" because it is happening.
How do you decompress?
I'm a huge podcast person. I just finished “Unfinished: Deep South” This podcast looks into the case of Isadore Banks, an African American man who was lynched in 1954. It definitely delves into how law enforcement was involved, too, so it's certainly relevant to today. I also love RuPaul's Drag Race. That’s my go-to if I need to cheer myself up. Any RuPaul's Drag Race, I don't care if it's in Canada, UK, wherever. And, of course, getting caught up on some documentaries; I'm surprised at how long it took me to actually watch 13th on Netflix but it was an incredibly amazing documentary. If you look at what's happening now, it's so timely.
Another thing I would highly recommend, especially…in the midst of this pandemic, no matter what your situation is, is therapy. I personally have a therapist who I started seeing again during the pandemic. It's so important to take care of your mental health, and it's so much easier nowadays to meet with a therapist. I have an app that I talk to her on my phone with. I don't have to drive anywhere. It's completely safe. You have to figure out those ways to take care of your mental health. If that means seeing a therapist, if that means utilizing some sort of free counseling support that might be available through UNLV, whatever that looks like, I urge folks to do that, especially now.
If you aren't taking care of yourself and you're stuck in your house with your family, you're not going to be any good to them, or to yourself. At a certain point, even as busy as I was working full time in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy and working on my thesis, that's when I saw a therapist because I was so overwhelmed, I needed someone to help me deal with all this mental, emotional stuff. Especially with my thesis project, because it wasn't just the project, it was dealing with people that are undergoing trauma themselves. It's a lot and no matter what anyone's situation is, if you feel like you need that mental health support, please seek it out because you'll be a better person for it. And your family will thank you for it.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I'm a military brat. My mom was in the Air Force for 21 years. Honestly, it helps me in my advising because I deal with folks who either have parents who were or are in the armed forces, or who are themselves veterans, or are actively deployed right now, or in the National Guard. I do feel like that experience gives me a little bit of an inner knowledge and helps me with those folks, even the folks at ROTC. I've lived in England and Germany, and have traveled the world because of being an Air Force brat.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Stop freaking out. It's not worth it. I had a mentor at MGM resorts who said to me, "Karintha, you're stronger than you know," and that always stuck with me. I don't think I fully understood what she was talking about until I went through certain life experiences years later, but it’s become my mantra — that when things are bad or overwhelming, that's what helps keep me going. I'm stronger than I know. Because it's true. That inner strength is something that you don't even know you can pull from until you have to.
What advice would you offer to students who are struggling through this time?
Be flexible with yourself and your family. As students, please be aware of your enrollment date and time. I would be remiss to not include that. Work with advisors to ensure you're on track for graduation. Work with advisors to find courses that you may not even have known existed, but end up being your favorite classes that you’ve ever taken. We have a wealth of knowledge of classes that are out there that might be the class that really impacted you and helped you to figure out what you wanted to do for your career.
And then, be flexible with yourself and your family. Be kind to yourself. Now is not a time to beat yourself up about things that you may want to feel guilty about. We need to all give ourselves some grace during this time.