Changing the world one student at a time
Wendy Peia Oakes is an associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, and has been a faculty member since 2012. Her research and teaching continue a mission she undertook nearly 30 years and three degrees ago as a middle school teacher in a self-contained special education classroom: improving educational access and outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
But the much older students she teaches today, along with her faculty colleagues, will attest she invests as much time and energy working to support the ASU students in her classes as she did in her 13 years as a special education teacher. Oakes knows that the quality of education that children with special needs receive tomorrow depends on nurturing their prospective teachers now. And she says the relationships those teacher candidates experience with each other and their professors are vital to their future success in one of public education’s most challenging specialties.
“As special educators, every day we have an opportunity to positively impact the life of a child and their family,” Oakes says. “It is a profession in which every day is exciting, challenging and rewarding. Special education teachers are a talented group of professionals committed to creating positive learning experiences for each child to grow and develop.”
Oakes’ students may not be aware of the commitment she shares with her husband, Dan, to working outside the classroom to enable their success; a commitment they demonstrate by financially supporting scholarships for MLFTC students. And this year, they went a step further, with an endowment that created the Oakes Peia Scholarship, which will be awarded to students who plan to enter the special education field.
The scholarship bears both names of this couple who met more than 30 years ago when Daniel Oakes and Wendy Peia were students at the University of Maryland. Wendy’s roommate, who had worked with Dan, introduced them. Four years later, they were married.
Since leaving the pre-K–12 public school system, Wendy completed her PhD at ASU in 2009, then became an instructor and research associate for the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University before returning to MLFTC in 2012. Dan is chief operating officer for Randstad SourceRight, a North American talent acquisition firm that’s part of the Dutch multinational, Randstad.
Three years ago, Dan and Wendy decided the time was right to start donating to scholarship support for MLFTC students. What made the time right, Wendy says, was, “... when our youngest graduated from ASU! We were finished paying for tuition for our girls” — they have two — “and we thought we could help support other students completing their degrees.”
“Helping others has always been a strong value in our family,” agrees Dan, “and we are extremely fortunate to be in a financial situation to do so. I’m always saddened by the stories I hear from Wendy or her students about the hardships of getting to their teaching placements or buying supplies, and of how difficult it is to stay in school.”
That’s part of what motivated the couple to give an additional gift to the Dean McGrath Scholarship fund this year. The McGrath Scholarship provides emergency assistance to MLFTC students facing unforeseen circumstances — lack of food or transportation, or unexpected outstanding fees — to help them stay on track to earning their degree. “We hope that gift gives someone a financial lift that enables them to keep pursuing their teaching dreams,” Dan says.
The McGrath scholarship has been doubly vital this spring as the coronavirus pandemic has upended not only ASU’s academic year, but the American economy. Wendy says, “We know many of our students hold multiple jobs — including in businesses that have closed. And many of them have families and small children and are already living on tight budgets as they attend school. We knew the need would increase for the emergency funding. We are fortunate that both Dan and I and both our daughters are still employed.”
Creating a scholarship after years of gifts to others seemed like a natural step to Wendy and Dan. “At the time we had decided to support the immediate needs of students,” Wendy says, “but we really liked the idea of a long-term ability to support future teachers as well.”
Still, a natural step is not always a small one, and while Wendy says the MLFTC development staff made the endowment process easy, it is a substantial commitment — one the couple felt strongly was right for them.
Dan says, “President Obama spoke at Wendy’s graduation at ASU when she received her doctorate, and he challenged the graduates to go out and change the world. The work Wendy does now, and has been doing since I met her 30 years ago, is so inspiring to me. So providing a scholarship with which we can help other teachers and students achieve their dreams and be able to change the world was an easy decision.”
Wendy says the best thing she could hear from a graduate who receives the Oakes Peia Scholarship and enters the field she has devoted her life to, is “... that they love their work! And I look forward to hearing about gains made or successes by their students or a student’s family.”
The long-term result Dan hopes for is, “... that we help students achieve their dreams of becoming teachers, and that they are able to touch the lives of many of their students — changing the world one student at a time.”
Written by: Erik Ketcherside