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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
June 13, 2006
DeKalb — Only one month after Jenna Sticken crossed the stage to collect a Northern Illinois University bachelor's degree in special education, the 22-year-old has started graduate school.
And just like the last four years, as she begins her pursuit of a master's degree in orientation and mobility to work with children with visual disabilities, she will study in her mother's classroom.
Jodi Sticken has taught in the College of Education's Department of Teaching and Learning since 1982, two years before Jenna was born.
“I didn't know what I wanted to do,” Jenna says, “but I used to go to work with her when I was little, and right before I moved into school my freshman year, I realized I'd had so much fun. It's a rewarding career.”
“One summer, I was an O&M specialist for a transition program for high school-age blind kids, and she ended up coming with me. It was the summer after third grade for her, and she ended up having a great time,” Jodi says. “When she decided to go into this field, I said, ‘You've got to be kidding me. You always said the last thing you'd do is teach.' ”
Gaylen Kapperman, the longtime head of NIU's Programs in Vision, is neither surprised by Jenna's success nor to slow to boast about her.
Or about Eric Sticken, Jenna's oldest brother and another graduate of the program. Or about Gretchen Kapperman, his own daughter and yet another alum.
Students are desperately needed to serve a swelling population of people with visual disabilities and, at NIU, the faculty literally are birthing and growing their own.
“The reason there's such a shortage of professionals in this field is because people don't know about it,” Jodi says. “My kids grew up around it.”
“Our situation is very unique. Nobody – I mean the professors in this field – has their kids in class with them as their graduate students and advisees. We know of no one who has done that – ever – and we've got three of them,” Gaylen says. “Our kids had to do better. We expected more from our kids, and if they didn't work up to our expectations, they got called on it. Harshly.”
NIU's course of study is among the country's best and largest programs in blindness and visual impairment, preparing students to become teachers of visually impaired children, rehabilitation specialists for newly blinded adults and instructors of orientation and mobility.
Kapperman and Sticken say they never outwardly encouraged their children to follow in their footsteps, although they'll admit to little nudges.
When Eric Sticken quit his job as an associate editor at a trade journal during the uneasy economy after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his mother proposed graduate school.
And Eric, who already had taken a couple of his mom's classes “just for kicks” while he was finishing his “record-length undergraduate career,” decided to lay the foundation for the Sticken Dynasty. He's now interested in research and public policy and, unlike his gig at the magazine, “doing something to make the world better.”
“He's a bleeding-heart liberal. All his life, since he was a toddler, he's been saving somebody,” Jodi says with a laugh. “He's now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona in visual disabilities, but he worked for two years as a mobility specialist in Charlotte, N.C., and absolutely loved it. He doesn't understand why everyone isn't a mobility specialist.”
“No two days are the same,” Eric says. “Everyone says that about their job, but in my case, it really was true. A lot of days I didn't go into an office. Every new person I worked with had different abilities and different challenges.”
Gretchen Kapperman had a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology and a master's degree in social work.
“I intentionally did not try to influence her,” Gaylen says, “because I want her to make up her own mind as with what she should do with her own life.”
But when she couldn't find a satisfying job in social work, her father could no longer bite his tongue.
“I made the suggestion when she was home visiting one day,” he says. “I said: ‘Why don't you think about coming on down and being with me in our program here? I know you can do it. I know your academic record. You have the GRE scores. Your GPA is high.' She thought about it for a while. I said, ‘I know where the financial aid is available.' I suggested places she could apply. It worked out.”
His daughter began a “weekend marriage,” living with her parents Monday through Thursday in their Sycamore house and returning to the home she shares with her husband in Milwaukee from Friday through Sunday.
Gretchen, who later received training at the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, N.Y., to serve deaf blind people, also worked as her dad's graduate assistant.
“It was tough, no question about that, and I knew it would be difficult. I told her, ‘You can do anything for nine or 12 months. You can do this.' I know her mother thought I was a little tough on her,” he says. “I flunked her on one of her assignments, and it was not a good scene. It was the only time we had words. She was pretty irritated with me, but we made up, tears and hugging. When she graduated, I really missed working with her. She's an extremely dedicated young woman who really, really does a great job.”
She now is an O&M teacher for the Milwaukee Public Schools and for the Center for Deaf-Blind Persons. Her two jobs put her in contact with clients of all ages.
“I'm really happy that I switched careers. My dad convinced me to at least check out the field, and I have no regrets. Working with people with blindness and visual impairments is really rewarding and fulfilling, and I get to be outside every day,” she says.
“What was the most interesting for me having my dad as an adviser came the first day of class, when I walked into the classroom – the classroom where I had gotten into trouble when I was much younger, scribbling on the blackboard with crayons,” she adds. “And because I know my dad so well, it was actually kind of easy. Some people would think that it would be hard to have him as an adviser, but I know exactly how he thinks. None of his quirks bother me.”
Jodi Sticken echoes her colleague's assessment of the teacher-student relationships the parents took on with their children.
“Kap and I have both been attentive to the idea of other students might be thinking our children's way is being paved, and we've never wanted that. They've had to work hard, and they've done well,” Sticken says.
“And the kids haven't tried to take advantage of the fact that I'm their mother. We separate what goes on at school with what goes on at home,” she adds. “When Eric first got his master's degree and started working, he really was looking to take a job out of state because he didn't want to be in my shadow. But he's more than capable of making a name for himself and, in fact, he did. He's pretty well known. Jenna is concerned about the same thing, and she'll also be fine.”
Jenna, like her mother and brother, loves the career she seemingly has inherited.
She remembers summer days spent watching her mother work with teens, “opening up their world. They were learning to cook and clean. They were outside playing adapted sports. It just kind of amazed me.”
But Jenna prefers younger children, working with babies from birth to age 3, “getting them to explore, move around, roll over, start to crawl.” During the spring semester, she completed a clinical placement at a Naperville elementary school, where she worked with seven boys in kindergarten and first-grade with a wide range of visual impairments.
Learning from Professor Mom is fine, she says.
“I lived on campus, and we'd laugh when I'd have to make an advisement appointment with my ‘parent-adviser,' ” she says. “It was weird at first, but it ended up being OK. I always go to class, and I always have my homework done.”
“It's been fun. The idea was a little nerve-wracking, but it has been great,” Jodi says. “They use me as a resource. I've used them as resources. It's kind of nice to have family in the same field.”
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