Mario and Alma Pastega Award for Excellence in Service: Cindy Ryan

Dr. Cindy Ryan encourages her students in the Early Childhood Studies programs to be social justice warriors.

“I tell them I really believe they can do great things, whether it’s causing ripples in ponds or waves in oceans,” Ryan said. “Everyone has the ability to change the world somehow.”

Person in a classroom
Dr. Cindy Ryan expects her students at Western Oregon University to be social justice warriors.

Known for believing teaching and service are intertwined, Ryan is the 2020 recipient of the Mario and Alma Pastega Award for Excellence in Service.

“It’s always nice being recognized for the work you do,” Ryan said. “When that recognition is from your peers, it’s humbling and even more special.”

Ryan has served as the program coordinator and adviser to students in Western Oregon University’s Early Childhood Studies program since 2011. She tells her students she expects them to be co-teachers, where they will all take a journey to learn about research-based best practices in early childhood, inclusion and social justice.

“We grow and learn, and children grow and learn based on how things are modeled for them in the classroom,” she said. “For children to be able to learn, they need a safe space where they know they belong. When we truly believe that all children belong and all families are important, the rest is going to happen.”

Passionate about young children, their families and those who work with them, Ryan describes herself as an “inclusionist” who firmly believes we are stronger when we learn, live and thrive together.

“I am also a strong believer that in order for children and adults to learn, we need to create a safe and respectful classroom environment, and we need to create a caring classroom community where all belong, and everyone feels safe,” Ryan said.

When Ryan sees something she believes needing to be fixed, she asks what she can do to resolve it. That was the case when she organized the first Early Childhood Summer Inclusion Institute at WOU to bring together early childhood teachers and early childhood intervention specialists in 2014. The event has continued every year, except this year due to the coronavirus.

“When I was in Minnesota, the universities worked together to host the institute as a way for early childhood specialists to learn and recharge,” she said. “When I came to Oregon, I wondered why there wasn’t something similar, so I decided to start one. We put the first one together on a wing and a prayer and no money. People absolutely love the conference, and it’s a way to get my students and graduate students involved in a variety of ways.”

Two people
Western Oregon University Associate Professor Cindy Ryan, left, with her daughter, Caitlin Ryan.

She also received a $1 million grant for Project PIECE – Promoting Inclusion in Early Childhood Educators. The five-year grant was used to recruit nontraditional students that had their associate degree to come to WOU to complete their early childhood teaching degree and get a license and early intervention special education endorsement.

Currently, she’s looking at how to better serve nontraditional students who often encounter roadblocks. “I am passionate about recreating and fixing the system to better serve underserved populations,” she said. “We are creating online flexible pathways for students, and constantly redesigning and reinventing what we do to meet the needs of students and honor who they are.”

On her office wall, there is a poster of a young woman confidentially striding through a city. The words read, “I am in the world to change the world.”

“I fully believe in service to others, and that it is our responsibility as human beings to assist others,” she said. “It’s something I share with my students. I tell them with knowledge comes power,   and that they know about something, they need to decide what they are going to do about it. They know I expect them to go out and change things for the better.”

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