Professor’s mentorship of Special Education doctoral students produces consistent grant success

by Sal Nudo  /   Dec 5, 2016

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Professor Micki Ostrosky of the Department of Special Education has had a distinguished career in her field, earning prominent awards, attaining important grant funding, and mentoring approximately 30 doctoral students. But even she is amazed by her friend and colleague, Amy Santos, who has successfully assisted three doctoral students during the past three years with applying for and receiving grant funding for research projects.

Ostrosky believes the writing and funding accomplishments may be unprecedented at the College of Education.

“She’s mentoring these students and giving them critical feedback about grant writing,” Ostrosky said. “She’s working with them on how to write grants, and helping them understand key components of the call for proposals that they have to highlight when describing what their project is about.”

All three students have been funded through the Department of Special Education’s Project BLEND doctoral training grant, which prepares students in early childhood special education and provides paid tuition, a yearly stipend for full-time participation, and an annual stipend for conference attendance and research materials. 

Santos’s successful run of helping students attain grant funding began in 2014 with Catherine Corr, Ed.M. ’09 Sp.Ed., Ph.D. ’15 Sp.Ed., who was the first person at the University of Illinois to receive a Doris Duke Fellowship for the Promotion of Child Well-Being. At the time, Santos felt that Corr would go on to heavily influence the field of special education, and Corr is proving her mentor right.

The two-year fellowship ($25,000 per year) that Corr received funded her dissertation, a piece that was selected by the campus panel for the 2016 CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award to represent the University of Illinois nationally. Corr’s work focused on children with disabilities who also have been subjected to maltreatment or abuse, an understudied area, according to Santos.

“Since she graduated, Catherine’s project has really gained a lot of national attention in our field,” Santos said. “There are a lot of things that have come out of it.”

Corr is now a research associate at Vanderbilt University. She and 11 other leading experts in the field of early childhood special education wrote the first position statement for the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children on child maltreatment and abuse and neglect.

According to Corr, the policy statement will be used to write a larger statement on individuals with disabilities across the lifespan: “What started in my teeny tiny dissertation has blossomed into a policy statement and some really great collaborations that I think are going to sustain this important work moving forward.”

Preparing the best leaders in special education

Amy Santos was born in the Philippines and has lived in Urbana-Champaign for 19 of the 26 years she has been in the U.S. She arrived at Illinois in 1997, and her list of achievements and honors are numerous: a Fulbright Scholar in 1990; an Alumni Achievement Award recipient from Utah State University in 2013; and an Outstanding Faculty Award for Service from Illinois in 2013, just to name a few.

Santos is enthusiastic about her work and loves what she does as a professor in Special Education, viewing herself as an educator, mentor, and adviser to students. It takes weeks of strenuous work to help doctoral students write highly competitive grants and serve as the principal investigator on these studies. Nonetheless, Santos will put in the needed time working on writing revisions, helping build in-state connections, providing budgetary advice, and offering moral support to young scholars who are truly committed.

“I always feel like part of my role is to prepare the best leaders in the field of special education. And in our field, the ability to write grants is crucial. For me to help plant that seed to help these doctoral students realize how important that is and what it means to their own career and ability to do significant research, and then to connect themselves to the larger field nationwide—that to me is a good mentor. That’s my role.”

During 2016-17, Santos collaborated on several active grants with colleagues, including a project with the Illinois Department of Human Services ($1,100,656), a project with the U.S. Department of Education ($1,249,934), and two projects with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ($1,384,784 and $25,000).

Ostrosky said Santos’s grant-writing success is crucial in the special education field and valuable for the students who are interested in learning how to write grants, a process that gives them experience and project data to “hit the ground running” in their first academic job following graduation.

“It’s really important that students know how to write grants, and working on small grants is how they learn how to manage a grant and what it takes to oversee larger projects,” Ostrosky said. “They’re walking out of the College of Education at Illinois after they graduate well-equipped.”

A culture of resources and assistance

Following Corr’s grant-writing success, Santos has helped Kimberly Hile, Ed.M. ’07 Sp.Ed., a current doctoral student, and Jenna Weglarz-Ward, Ed.M. ’03 Sp.Ed., Ph.D. ’16 Sp.Ed., receive grant funding.

Hile was the recipient of a $25,000 grant this year from the Administration for Children & Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Her study uses photo elicitation—a way of interviewing that uses images to learn more about a person’s thoughts—as a means to engage families of young children with disabilities in Head Start.

“Amy is amazing,” Hile said. “She is so very supportive and takes time to explain everything. I had so many questions along the way, and she always took the time to make sure I fully understood the process. She has successfully obtained many federal grants herself, so I feel very blessed to have learned from her.”

Weglarz-Ward’s funding in 2015 also came from HHS and focused on how child care providers and early intervention providers support infants and toddlers with disabilities in child care. She too was impressed with Santos’s overall know-how and willingness to listen.   

“She’s open to students’ ideas and wants them to really pursue areas of study that are of interest to them, areas that will further their career,” Weglarz-Ward said.

Santos said writing grants entails much more than just sitting in a room, writing. It’s a good sign, then—and probably inevitable—that Santos’s succession of grant-funded doctoral students are supporting one another in the grant-writing process.

Hile was inspired by and received a great deal of support from Weglarz-Ward, absorbing suggestions to ensure she was putting together a comprehensive proposal. Corr, meanwhile, is serving as a mentor for Deserai Miller, who could be the fourth Special Education doctoral student in four years to receive grant funding, with Santos again serving as an adviser.

“It creates this continued chance for more students to receive funding because we have more resources that we can find for students to help them be successful,” Santos said.

Annually ranked as a top 10 department nationwide by U.S. News & World Report, the Department of Special Education continually tries to find different ways to support its students, with the goal of keeping the historically groundbreaking work of the unit alive.

Santos said Corr, Hile, and Weglarz-Ward each came up with exceptional research ideas on their own, concepts that had to be grounded in special education literature, what is known from academic work, and what has been culled from the real world. She called the trio of scholars determined, hardworking, and self-initiating.

“We want to keep contributing to the field of special education and moving the field forward,” Ostrosky said. “Through these grants we’re adding to the research literature, curriculum, and recommended practice as we continue to move special education forward by asking questions we think are important.”