Michelle Sands

Assistant Professor, Department of Special and Early Education

Michelle Sands

What year did you start working at NIU?

Where is your hometown? and where do you live now?
My hometown is Lombard, Illinois, but my family and I currently live in DeKalb.

Where did you attend college and what degree(s) have you earned?
I received my B.S. in journalism from UIUC. However, I went on to get master’s degrees in early childhood special education from Elmhurst University and in educational leadership from North Central College. In 2021, I graduated from UIUC with my Ph.D. in special education.

In which department(s) do you teach?
I teach in the Department of Special and Early Education.

Were you a first-generation college student? If so, what advice would you offer to current first generation students?
I am a proud first-generation college student. One piece of advice I share with all of my students is to use the resources provided to you, whether that is the amazing services found throughout the university on a broad range of topics, or faculty members. If you have a goal in mind, find someone who has achieved that goal and ask them questions about how they did it. Most often they will be happy to share things that helped them along the way or things to avoid.

What do you like about working at NIU?
While I have only just joined the NIU family, I am so impressed with the connection faculty and staff have with students. I love working in an environment that values relationships.

What advice would you give to students currently attending NIU?
For those currently attending NIU, I would encourage them to enjoy all the benefits of being a student as long as they possibly can. Being a college student, you have a plethora of resources and perks available to you that don't always last beyond graduation, or at least aren't always as convenient to enjoy. Go to sporting events, join a club that expands your interest and knowledge and helps you make connections with individuals you may not have the chance to engage with again, and utilize the services and supports available to you. You are here for a short period of time — get all you can out of the experience!

Tell us about a research or engaged learning project you have led.
Over the past several years, I have had the pleasure of working with undergraduate and graduate students as research apprentices — active members of my research team who work to plan, conduct and report investigations related to a variety of topics. This fall I am hoping to fund for a few different multi-state investigations of parent, teacher and administrator perceptions of the kindergarten transition process for children with disabilities. I hope to have a few students partner with me on these projects.

What do you enjoy most about mentoring students?
What I enjoy most about mentoring students is that it serves both the mentor and the mentee. Not only does the mentor provide advice and guidance to the student, but the mentee also learns a great deal through the process. It is another opportunity for growth — something we as teachers should always strive for.

What do you hope students take away from their college experience?
It is my hope that students not only take away a great deal of skills, knowledge and experience specific to their area/career of interest, but also of the world around them. I hope they come away a better citizen, community member, teammate and person.

What is your favorite memory of NIU?
I look forward to building a collection of memories here at NIU. My favorite memory so far is exploring campus over the summer with my daughter Cecilia (age 5). She is already talking about how she wants to attend NIU and is already a Huskie fan and member of the Huskie Pup Club!

What’s one thing about NIU that’s surprised you?
After spending a couple years "up north," the one thing that has surprised me about NIU is the heat! I had quickly forgotten about the summer heat and humidity.

What fulfills you personally and professionally?
Personally and professionally, I am fulfilled by engaging in activities that satisfy my passions and move me forward toward my goals. Currently, I am enjoying being outside with my family and friends as much as possible and building new relationships within our community. Professionally, I am excited to help nurture my students' skills and knowledge regarding early childhood special education and prepare them to be the best teachers they can be.

Which of NIU’s core values align with your own?
While I think each of the NIU core values align with my own, the two I most closely relate to are curiosity and creativity and equity and inclusion. In terms of curiosity and creativity, I am always trying something new in my teaching, aiming to make my courses more active learning experiences. Equity and inclusion are values that should be assumed when you work in the field of special education.

Have you contributed to any NIU Foundation fundraising campaigns such as the Day of Giving or Huskies United? If yes, why did you decided to support NIU?
My first purchase at Huskie Books and Gear was a Pride with Purpose Homecoming 2023 T-shirt. Proceeds for the T-shirt go to NIU’s general scholarship fund. I'm excited to learn more about opportunities to support our students via the NIU Foundation.

Who has influenced your professional path?
My professional path has been influenced by several individuals, as I have been in the field of education for over 20 years. These mentors continue to support and influence me in many positive ways. There are many, but some include Donna Nylander (currently an Illinois Pyramid Model consultant/mentor), Pat Chamberlain (president of Chamberlain Educational Consulting Inc.) and Hedda Meadan (Margaret Joy Smale Valpey Professor in Special Education and professor of biomedical and translational sciences at UIUC).

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Are you currently doing it? If not, what changed your path?
I wanted to be a marine biologist, a doctor and a poet. My path has changed and evolved over time because I am a curious individual who enjoys learning about a variety of topics. However, after working with young children and families I knew that the field of early childhood was perfect for me.

Are you participating in or have you participated in any NIU shared governance or professional development groups? If so, how has your participation enhanced your experience as an employee?
Not yet, but I am excited to take advantage of the many courses available through the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.

Are you a member of or hold a position within a professional or community organization? If so, what organization? What is the purpose of that organization and how does being part of this organization benefit you in your role at NIU?
I am a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Council for Exceptional Children's Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and have presented at these organizations' national conferences. Both organizations shape the field of early childhood education and the experiences of young children and their families through guidance for practice and policy. They provide the field with recommended practices to ensure high-quality early-learning experiences for all young children.

What community organizations are you involved in?
I am looking forward to becoming more involved locally with our Birth to Five regional team and the DeKalb County Collaborative for Young Children (DCCYC).

What do you do to relax or recharge?
My favorite way to relax or recharge is to go camping or head to the beach with my family.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about your NIU Huskie story?
I am thrilled to be a member of Huskie Nation! Go Huskies!

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