Thursday, January 19, 2012

Liberal Studies Senior Deborah Dougall-Loperena Wins Aspiring Teachers of Color Fellowship

“I didn’t know how I’d be able to do it,” Liberal Studies senior Deborah Dougall-Loperena says of her lifelong desire to become a teacher. “I just knew I wanted to.”

Deborah Dougall-Loperena
Becoming an educator was an especially significant goal for Dougall-Loperena, who’s not only the first in her family to attend college but the first to have completed high school. She says she decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy when she graduated high school to take advantage of the GI Bill program, knowing she couldn’t otherwise afford the costs of continuing her education. Then came the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and that following Monday, Dougall-Loperena’s administrative personnel unit was among the first to arrive in Afghanistan. She admits that it was a scary time. Still, she earned three Navy Achievement Medals during her deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan and continued to keep her eye on the long-term prize.

Now, Dougall-Loperena has been awarded a prize that will allow her to achieve more than she says she ever thought was possible. She is just one of 25 students nationwide to have been chosen by the Woodrow Wilson–Rockefeller Brothers Fund to receive an Aspiring Teachers of Color fellowship. The fellowships, announced Friday, January 13, by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, were created in 1992 to help recruit, support, and retain outstanding individuals of color as public education teachers and administrators. Recipients are provided a $30,000 stipend to complete a master’s degree in education, preparation to teach in high-needs public schools, support throughout a three-year teaching commitment, and guidance toward teaching certification.

Granada Hills resident Dougall-Loperena was born in Cayo, Belize. Her mother immigrated when Deborah was 5, determined to make enough money as a home-care nurse to bring her children to the United States. Six years later, Deborah and four of her nine siblings were able to join their mother (five others were by that time adults and stayed behind in Belize). Deborah describes both of her parents as self-educated; neither attended high school. “My dad taught himself to read and write,” Dougall-Loperena says, noting with pride that during World War II he served with a volunteer international army unit in Belize. Her father died in July 2011, but she says she knows he would be very proud of her. “My parents always supported and pushed me,” she says. “I want to continue to make them proud.”

Dougall-Loperena chose to attend CSUN because of its strong reputation for educating teachers, both through the College of Humanities’ Liberal Studies Program and the College of Education. She says that she plans to concentrate on secondary education for students with mild to moderate disabilities, so she was particularly drawn to CSUN’s special-education programming. By happy coincidence, this allowed her to reconnect with special-ed professor Sally Spencer, whom Dougall-Loperena met at age 11 when Spencer served as a volunteer mentor with Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), an after-school theater program for less-advantaged youth. Deborah says she feels so fortunate that she was able to resume that mentoring relationship with Dr. Spencer at CSUN.

Professor Spencer told Dougall-Loperena in October that she had nominated her for the WW-RBF fellowship. Deborah had just days to submit the required transcripts and application package. Two weeks later she was flown to Washington, D.C., to interview at Howard University as one of 50 finalists. And then in December, during finals week, Dougall-Loperena received word that she had been selected for this year’s fellowship cohort. “It was the best Christmas present ever,” she says. “[All the finalists] were more than qualified. I’m still in awe that I was chosen.”

Currently a special-education teaching assistant with three years’ experience, Dougall-Loperena will graduate from the Liberal Studies Program this spring with a Multi-subject Teacher Prep BA with a concentration in art. And her graduate school plans? “I want to continue at CSUN. I’m applying to ACT-R,” she says, referencing the College of Education’s accelerated program where candidates can concurrently earn a master’s degree in education and a special-education teaching credential in just 18 months. “That’s a whole other interview process!” But, she adds, “Dr. Spencer has always told me to keep reaching for the stars.”