Shayla Angeline Cunico

Wendy Peia Oakes has been an assistant professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University since 2012. Her research and teaching continue a mission she undertook nearly 30 years and three degrees ago as a middle school classroom teacher in College Park, Maryland: improving educational access and outcomes for young children 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 12 years as a K-12 teacher. Oakes knows that the quality of education that special-needs children receive tomorrow depends on nurturing their prospective teachers today. And she says the relationships those teacher candidates experience with each other and their professors are vital to their future success in public education’s most challenging specialty.

“Early childhood special educators need each other to rely on to continue to grow,” Peia Oakes said. “It's a profession in which every single day is new and different and exciting, and these are people who are very highly committed to doing good for others; to creating an experience for young children to grow into whoever, whatever they want to be.”

Peia 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 Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College 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. Two years later, they were married.

After leaving the K-12 classroom, Wendy was an instructor and research associate for the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt, as well as for Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, before completing her doctorate at ASU in 2009. 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 ASU students. What made the time right, Wendy said, 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,” Dan agreed, “and we are extremely fortunate to be in a good financial situation. I’m always saddened by the stories I hear from Wendy or her students about the hardships of getting to work 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 teachers college 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 said.

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. “We know many of our students hold multiple jobs — including in businesses that have closed," Wendy said. "And many of them have families and small children and are already living on tight budgets. 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 said, “but we really liked the idea of a long-term ability to support teachers as well.”

Still, a natural step is not always a small one, and while Wendy says the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College development staff made the endowment process easy, it is a substantial commitment — one the couple felt strongly was right for them.

“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," Dan said. "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 any 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.”