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MHC professor receives PECASE award

By Paula Canning

Staff Writer

SOUTH HADLEY Growing up, Mount Holyoke College's (MHC) Assistant Professor Becky Wai-Ling Packard never would have predicted she would one day become a college professor.

But her unexpected career path has brought her more than just a career that she loves it has also led her to receive one of the the highest honors bestowed by the United States government on young scientists the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Presented to Packard and 20 other recipients at the White House June 13 by President George W. Bush, Packard was given the award for her work examining the impact of locally based community organizations, mentoring and the effect of home and school environments on the transition of low-income urban youth from high school to post-secondary education or work.

Among the other PECASE winners, Packard was the only one from the education profession, and is also the first MHC professor to receive the award

Packard, who has been an assistant professor at MHC since 1999, teaches Educational Psychology, Statistics, a research class in Developmental Psychology, as well as a seminar in motivation at MHC.

She explained that she was one of approximately 360 young scientists who received a 2004 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The grants range from $400,000 to $1 million, and are the organization's most noted awards for early career scientists, according to a press release from the college.

Packard explained that PECASE award winners are chosen from the pool of CAREER grant awardees.

"I was so overwhelmed when I found out," said Packard, who traveled to D.C. with her husband and her three-month-old daughter to receive the award . "I felt like it was happening to someone else."

She added that just receiving the grant was "an honor enough," and that receiving the PECASE award came as a "great surprise."

According to Packard, Bush altered the criteria for the PECASE award this year to recognize community service and outreach, which she said helped extend the opportunity for the award to a broader audience.

"It was really great because a lot of the winners were people from all different [disciplines] who were showing their involvement in all of this great community outreach," she said. "It was a real privilege being part of this group of people."

She explained that her interest in the subject of her research was born out of her conviction that there was a lack of research about young people from lower income backgrounds striving to improve their lives and their education.

This led her to want to research the positive role that mentoring relationships and community organizations may have in the lives of young people.

She said that her research also included an interest in how young people participate in science and technology over time, including career or education paths that they choose to pursue.

According to Packard, her research represents the fusion of her two selves her researching and teaching self and her community self because much of her research was also inspired by her involvement as a mentor at Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a non-profit organization that works to empower young girls.

She said that while serving as a mentor, she became interested in the younger population's role in community organizations, specifically that of younger people from lower income backgrounds.

"It was then that I realized even more that there really wasn't a lot of research on young people coming from low income, inner-city backgrounds who were doing a lot of work in their community," she said.

Packard explained that over time, she began to create a collaboration between her classroom and the organization by incorporating opportunities for her students to volunteer at Girl Inc.

She said that this collaboration has afforded her students the opportunity not only to help our in their community, but to learn a great deal.

"The community organizations really like working with me because we don't go in there thinking we're going to save the day," she said. "My students are there to learn."

She said that as Girls Inc. has continued to grow over the years, the relationship has been beneficial to both the organization and the students.

"It has been mutually beneficial because I can coordinate students on my side to take part in the organization's activities, while the students are given leadership training and are given the opportunity to learn about what teens are doing in the community," she said.

She added that the experience challenges certain stereotypes about inner-city teens that her students may have adopted.

Packard, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and then went on to receive her Ph.D at Michigan State, was the first in her family to graduate from a four year college.

She said that although her parents both "are extremely hard workers who stressed the importance of education," she said she could never have predicted that she would earn a Ph.D and become a professor.

"I never thought that this is how things would unfold," she said. "It's interesting to me how things have come around. It's actually kind of wild."

She said that both she and her brother have both managed to become very successful, thanks largely in part to the encouragement that her parents offered.

"They monitored us both very closely," she said with a laugh.

Throughout her research, Packard said that she has been surprised by a number of her findings along the way, including the notion that a teen's current circumstances often does not indicate a great deal about future career aspirations.

"It's is not always obvious what someone's career goals are," Packard explained. "What someone is currently doing education wise does not map out what they want to do in the future."

She went on to explain that although it may not be obvious, a teen may actually have a "very strategic long-term plan" concerning their future.

"You can't just look at their current job, or what kind of education they're pursuing," she said. "You have to dig much deeper."

Packard said that receiving the PECASE award makes her feel as though the issues she is researching " are on the national radar."

"It gives me confidence that I will be able to continue the work with some source of support," she said.

According to Packard, the grant that she received will provide funding for her research for the next four years.

At the end of four years, she will again formulate a proposal or plan to apply for additional funding to continue her research.

In looking towards the future, Packard said that she is interested in working to emphasize to teachers the importance of believing in their students.

"Research has found that many teachers, especially those in an urban setting, don't believe in their students," she said.

She added that this is a generalization, and that there are many teachers who are working really hard "day in and day out" to to encourage their students.

She said she would like to research and encourage collaborations between teachers and community organizations that foster this type of encouragement.