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Nnenna Okpara: Empowering Her Community

October 04, 2019 - 4 minute read

Nnenna Okpara sitting with kids

Nnenna has been working in Special Education her entire career. In her most current position as a Program Specialist for a large urban school district, she is actively involved with teachers, administrators, and parents in meeting the needs of the children with special needs in her district.

Her coursework at Concordia not only gave her the practical skills to support her community but also has helped her to understand the global impact education needs to have.

Nnenna’s time in Concordia University Irvine’s doctoral program has changed her as a professional and empowered her as a citizen in her quest to have an even more significant impact on her community.

Please tell us about what you consider to be one of the biggest impacts you are making/have made in one of your respective communities.

When asked about the positive impact she has had on her community Nnenna Okpara says frankly, “My whole world is students with disabilities.” In her current position in a large urban school district as a Program Specialist, she has opportunities “constantly and on a daily basis” to have a positive impact on either the program or the support staff that works with the students. She emphasizes that her involvement is not peripheral but that she is actively working with students and their parents as well as to teachers and administrators looking at IEPs and making sure they are implementable and appropriate, and students are getting the education they are entitled to. “ The kind of work that I do, I can’t get away from having an impact in my career.”

What have you learned about the diverse needs of this community?

A few years ago Nnenna left her position in Orange County as a Special Ed Teacher to take a position with Norwalk La Mirada Unified as a Program Specialist. While she expected a learning curve on the job, she was not expecting it in dealing with her new community. What she learned right away was that the needs of this new community demanded that she do things differently. “This population/community is dramatically different. I am dealing with students and families where employment, high poverty, unemployed parents and homelessness are issues. The students with disabilities still need support to access general curriculum, but here we are running into other issues that compound the struggle of a student with a disability.” This has prompted her to be part of the administrative team that is increasing parent training to help them understand the special education programs. Her district is also working on writing legally defensible IEPs that are easier for the parents without a formal education to understand and can be easily picked up by any district when the family moves. They are also much more explicit in their communication with parents. All this is to meet the very distinct needs of this community.

How was your research/study as part of Concordia University Irvine’s EDD program helped you address the needs of this community?

“I love CUI!” Nnenna says unabashedly. “ The actual research (dissertation) has not followed me as I thought it would, but the practical skills that I gained as an ongoing learner in the program have me constantly thinking about my community and how to support it. Concordia University Irvine has helped me understand the global impact education needs to have.” This is so evident when one looks at the positive impact that Nnenna is having on her school district.

How have you used your research or experience to develop strategies to meet these needs?

Nnenna credits her Concordia University Irvine education for changing the way she views people in her environment. “I am looking at my own environment and even my own children in a different way considering their cognitive and emotional development- all because of my CUI educational background.”

How has your involvement with this community impacted other areas of your life?

Nnenna was not always interested in being a Special Ed teacher. In fact, growing up in her mom’s Sp. Ed. classroom she was pretty convinced she did not want to be one. However, something clicked along the way, and she has never looked back. Now she is passionate about her work and what she does with this community of special needs children informs everything she does including how she deals with her own children. “All of the strategies that we use for students that learn differently are strategies a typical child can benefit from,” says Nnenna. This work has also made her much more sensitive to the needs of parents especially those who do not have the time, resources and/or ability to deal with the needs of their children.

Nnenna also speaks highly of another community--her Concordia University Irvine family, when she talks about the impact on her life. Of the people in her cohort, she speaks of having formed life long friendships and continues to work with her colleagues. Moreover, while her interaction with other schools is limited, it is not that way with Concordia University Irvine. “This feels like it is an actual relationship that did not end when I graduated. CUI is constantly reaching out. This is more than just a foundation asking for money. This is meaningful. It is about a relationship and sustained interaction. We don't see each other every day but when we do it is like time hadn’t passed.”

Nnenna looks at Concordia University Irvine as a good friend and doesn’t want us to go away. Nnenna we feel exactly the same about you!

Additional responses from Pre-Interview Survey

In what ways, if any, has the Ed.D. program enhanced your ability to assess and develop positions/programs/interventions to respond to the needs of this community?

The knowledge I received as part of my Ed.D. program prepared me for my current role.

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