The stories were raw and honest. Charged with emotion, words pooled out from the study participants, who were parents and teachers involved with educating students with autism in remote, rural Appalachia. They spoke of both the hardships and the strengths in which tightknit rural communities can come together to support those with learning disabilities.

For Mary Tackett, a doctoral student providing assistance in the 2015 study, the experience was both moving and inspiring.

“I was tearful on the way home,” she said. “I had taught a student with autism in a rural school, and I wondered whether I had given enough of myself and done enough to show him that I cared as passionately as those other teachers.”

Tackett’s deep level of empathy impressed Amy Azano, an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Education and director of the research. She knew her student had the caring personality needed to be an outstanding scholar in the field of education. And it was this compassion that compelled Azano to nominate Tackett for an alumni award.

Tackett, who earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the School of Education in 2016, has been named the 2017 Outstanding Recent Alumna of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

She is now an assistant professor of education at Sweet Briar College, a small liberal arts college in central Virginia. During her first year, she weathered the rebuilding of the college after a turbulent time in which it nearly closed its doors. With only one other faculty member in the department, she rose to the many challenges the rebuilding process brought with it, from teaching course overloads to preparing seven courses, serving as the instructor of record for nine, and supervising students in field experiences.

Now in her second year, Tackett, who previously taught elementary school, finds many similarities between educating children and adults.

“Regardless of their age, students still need the same things,” she said. “They need effective teachers who know their content. I still need to be the expert in my field and show my students I’m willing to do everything in my power to help them succeed.”

But being a college professor was not her original goal; it was teaching at the elementary school level. Even as a young child her favorite pastime was playing teacher to her stuffed animals. As she grew up, her interest in the education profession increased.

With one of her grandmothers, her father, and two sisters, uncles, and cousins all graduates of Virginia Tech, Tackett knew which university to attend to pursue her interest in education.

After graduating from Virginia Tech in 2008 with a degree in English, she completed a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the School of Education. She went on to teach first grade, second grade, and then fifth grade.

“When I taught fifth grade,” she said, “I was saddened to see how many students still struggle with basic reading skills, and it broke my heart to see students who were embarrassed by their reading struggles.”

Feeling an intense desire to make a positive difference with these pupils, she discovered a different purpose. Sure, she could affect the lives of those in her own classroom, but could she do more? This brought a new longing to return to Virginia Tech for a doctorate to learn how to help more students and inspire other teachers in the field of literacy.

“The biggest lesson that I learned at Virginia Tech was that we are all lifelong learners,” she said. “I learned the importance of finding my own small area of strength and learning and doing everything I possibly could to become a teacher and expert in that area while still realizing that every morning I enter the classroom or every time I open a book, I once again become the student.”

Wisdom from her professors runs through her mind as she educates future teachers. There is Azano’s “find the fire in your belly” when doing research. From Heidi Anne Mesmer, an associate professor in the School of Education, she learned, “have a plan for your students or they will have a plan for you.”

And then there is the lesson from Mary Alice Barksdale, also an associate professor in the School of Education.

“Mary Alice taught me the importance of keeping a kind, calming presence in all situations,” Tackett said.

But it is her own advice for all learners that shows the same traits Azano discovered in Tackett during their autism study. These ideas reflect empathy and scholarship.

“Immerse yourself in every opportunity to grow and learn, but never become so busy that you become blind to the needs of others,” Tackett said. “Look for opportunities to serve and use your gifts, because if you aren’t using your knowledge and talents to help others, then you’ve missed the point.”

Written by Leslie King