Computer Science Graduate Breaks Barriers with Career in Irvington Municipal Government
Shawna Supel took a job as a computer operator for the Township of Irvington in 2001 as a Kean University computer science student and unexpectedly launched a groundbreaking career in public service.
Twenty-two years later, the 2005 Kean graduate has been named municipal clerk of the township that has been her lifelong home. She is the first woman and the first person of color to ever hold the job.
“It’s surreal and a great feeling to make history,” said Supel, who was sworn into the position in July after her predecessor, Harold Wiener, retired. “I'm humbled and honored. It’s fulfilling to know that I'm making my colleagues who believed in me proud.”
Supel describes the clerk’s office as “the heartbeat of the township.” The clerk is custodian of the township’s laws, resolutions and contracts and the chief administrator of elections. She administers the oath of office to public servants, takes minutes at council meetings and serves as liaison between residents and the governing body.
“I love working in the community, helping people and changing lives,” Supel said. “That's just in my spirit. Sometimes people come in upset, and we calm them down and get them the resources they need. I really enjoy that.”
Supel had not planned to work in government after graduating with a Kean computer science degree, after first getting her associate degree from Union College. But she found what she learned at the University served her well.
Working full-time and commuting to classes at night, Supel appreciated one professor’s teaching style “that prepared us for the real world and a tough boss.” She also enjoyed the challenge of group projects in a major that was male-dominated.
“As a female, you had to make sure your voice was heard and that people knew you were smart,” she said. “That also prepared me for the workforce.”
Patricia Morreale, Ph.D., professor and chair of Kean’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, said that Supel is typical of Kean computer science students – hardworking, persistent and prepared for success through undergraduate research and teamwork.
"Many of our faculty members had industry careers before joining academia and bring their corporate experiences into the classroom,” Morreale said. “The rigor and excellence they expect from their students remain an important part of our program.”
Supel faced challenges in Irvington, arriving in 2001 to find a typewriter on her desk. Still, she did get the chance to use her computer skills.
“My first assignment was to create a database of government records, and I’m proud to say we still use it to this day,” Supel said. “Now, my goal is to continue to scan in the historical records we need to keep, so they’ll be findable forever.”
She went on to secure her registered municipal clerk’s license in 2008, earning an 82 on the exam that had a pass rate of 30% to 40%.
Wiener, who called Supel “a fine person,” recommended her as his replacement.
“Shawna will now have the opportunity to lead the office into the future with the skills, talent, knowledge and professionalism she has exhibited for many years,” he said.
Supel credits a lot of her success to her team, which includes Assistant Municipal Clerk Shonta’ Watson, Alcoholic Beverage Control Secretary Sylvia Vason, and Keyboarding Clerk Anisa Williams. She’s also grateful to Mayor Tony Vauss and the municipal council for selecting her as clerk.
“My staff members keep me grounded and make sure I'm on point,” Supel said. “I couldn't ask for a better group.”