Thursday, May 11, 2023
Samantha Pedek, Spring 2023 Student Commencement Speaker, stands at a podium, dressing in commencement garb, speaking to the audience.
Samantha Pedek shares insights and inspiration as the 2023 College of Education Spring Commencement Speaker. Photo by Mei-Ling Shaw.

Samantha Pedek knew she wanted to be a teacher ever since third grade. However, she experienced many twists and turns on her path to this profession.

After attending schools in Alabama and Wisconsin and surviving a medical emergency in Iowa that required brain surgery, Pedek’s resilience and dedication kept her on journey to becoming a teacher.

After completing her undergraduate degree in Wisconsin and a year of graduate school in Alabama, she came to the University of Iowa, in the Science Education Program, a decision she made in part due to the positive reputation and caliber of the school’s Teacher Education Program in secondary education.

“Since joining the College of Education, I’ve finally felt a sense of belonging,” says Pedek of Muscoda, Wisconsin. “I was finally able to formally study the process of learning.”

However, an emergency during her second semester nearly derailed her career. Pedek had a seizure, caused by a brain tumor, that required surgery – a surgery which took away her ability to read or write legibly. Luckily, this loss was temporary, and Pedek stayed in high spirits throughout her treatment process, but was left learning “how to learn,” all over again.

“It was really interesting to experience the frustrations that some students feel when trying to learn, and this perspective heavily impacts my belief of the purpose and effectiveness of education on society today,” Pedek says.

She underwent months of treatment after her diagnosis, a journey that she has chronicled every step of the way in a blog. Ever the optimist, she found this experience both a valuable learning opportunity for herself and others.

“I participated in some research with the University of Iowa so they can get a better understanding of these types of tumors for others in the future,” Pedek says. “Someone else wants to take a peek into my brain? That’s pretty cool if you ask me.” 

“All in all, this journey has been fascinating. Scary, yes, but fascinating,” Pedek says.

While at the university, Pedek worked as a research assistant with the Science Education Program in the College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning. She studied elementary educators during science lessons, noting the differences between the conceptual understanding of these younger students relative to their older counterparts. 

“This experience fundamentally changed my perspective on the role of the educator in the learning process,” Pedek says. “This opportunity also allowed me to fully submerge myself in the world of education, without having to worry about finding a job to support me financially.”

Pedek says she was drawn to the University of Iowa’s Science Education Program, where her dedication and perseverance propelled her to receive her Master of Arts in Teaching in Science Education. Her academic journey at Iowa was capped off with the honor of being selected as the student speaker for the College of Education's Spring 2023 Undergraduate Commencement and Teacher Education Program Recognition Ceremony May 11 at Hancher Auditorium, where she spoke to the largest College of Education graduating class in the college's history -  nearly 200 students. Of those, 172 completed the Teacher Education Program and 25 received Education Studies and Human Relations (ESHR) degrees.

From a young age, Pedek has possessed a strong love of science. From her mother encouraging her to be a pretend archeologist with her sister in the family’s front yard in Muscoda, Wisconsin, to her father teaching her to be a creative, real-world problem solver, the seeds were sown early. Even her aunt, a chemistry teacher, fostered her intellectual curiosity by bringing an assortment of science demos whenever she visited.

And in third grade, she would be asked, for the first time, what she wanted to be when she grew up.

 “I immediately answered with ‘a teacher’,” Pedek says. “From that moment on, I was constantly helping other students learn. I took every opportunity to help my peers with anything school related regardless of content area.”

Pedek soon discovered her love for the process of learning, and by middle school, she had decided her favorite subject to tutor was math – which started her path towards STEM education.

By her sophomore year of high school, Pedek had gained the reputation of being able to tutor a host of classes, especially science and math. When upperclassmen came to her seeking help with physics – a class Pedek had not yet taken – she immediately went to the physics teacher to receive individual lessons. She credits this event with sparking her passion for teaching, and more specifically, teaching physics.

After high school graduation, Pedek attended the University of Wisconsin – River Falls, where after pursuing an internship with the university, she shifted her focus from teaching to research, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physics.

 “Even though I left the College of Education, I was never far from teaching,” Pedek says. “Some of my favorite college memories involved engaging with students and encouraging the learning process.”

After graduation, Pedek spent a year in a graduate program for particle astrophysics at the University of Alabama, where she rediscovered her love for teaching as a graduate teaching assistant.

“Being able to make my class enjoyable for students, most of whom only had negative experiences with science, was extremely rewarding,” Pedek says, “After the first year, I was reminded of the passion I have for teaching and changed my trajectory to become a science teacher.”

While many professors have helped Pedek along the way, she says she is especially grateful to UI College of Education Science Education Professor Brian Hand.

“Dr. Hand does a phenomenal job of making the students question everything they know about learning,” Pedek says. “His ability to effectively question and challenge learners changed my understanding of the function of education, and now inspires the way that I present myself in the classroom.

Her advice for students envisioning a future at the University of Iowa? Be open to what life has to offer.

 “I spent so much time trying to force myself into a box that wasn’t meant for me, and it took me years to figure out that my true calling had been staring me in the face the entire time,” Pedek says. “Taking some quality time to figure out what actually brings you joy can save you a lot of heartache in the future.”

After graduation, Pedek has her sights set on New Mexico, where she will begin her career as a high school physics teacher in the fall semester.