Utah State University Eastern’s Elementary Education Department added two inspirational women to its team this year.
Rachel Turner and Katherine Vela met in 2016 as they began their doctorate program at Texas A&M. Their courses of study led them on different paths during their time at Texas A&M. They were again reunited when they came to Utah in 2020 to interview for assistant professor positions at USU.
Initially the two were uneasy, as though they might be competing against one another for the position. They were relieved when the department hiring committee let them know they wanted both of them to join the USU faculty.
They were not only relieved to find that they weren’t competing for the position, but they would move across the country and start a new career with a familiar face. In August, Rachel Turner and Katherine Vela graduated from Texas A&M with their doctorate degrees and the women went to dinner to celebrate.
Rachel Turner grew up in the small town of Normangee, Texas. Her mother was an elementary school teacher and she remembers always being at school as a child. When people told her she was going to be a teacher just like her mom, Turner thought there was no way. When she was a senior in high school, she had the opportunity to mentor a girl in third grade. She witnessed the young girl move from being shy and reserved to being confident in reading aloud and becoming more talkative. Turner had a profound experience in witnessing her impact on this girl’s life and the impact the young girl had on her. Despite her previous resistance, she found she wanted to become a teacher.
As a graduate from Sam Houston State University, she began teaching several of the same students she knew while student teaching at an elementary school. She taught for a year then moved to San Antonio, Texas. During her time in San Antonio, Turner had the opportunity to work with pre-service teachers. Exchanging ideas, collaborating and working with these future teachers had a strong impact on Turner. She was inspired to go to graduate school.
Pursuing her master’s degree while continuing to teach, she graduated in 2016, then applied to Texas A&M for her Ph.D. Dr. Turner feels lucky to have had Dr. Lynn Burlbaw as her mentor during her doctorate studies. She felt inspired by his “choose-your-own-adventure” style of pursuing research projects. She followed her passions through graduate school which led her to researching social studies integration in elementary classrooms.
Turner chose to accept the assistant professor position at USU Eastern because she feels this campus has the best of both worlds: a small campus where everyone can get to know each other and work closely. At the same time, USU Eastern has the resources and department of a larger university.
Since she grew up in a small town, she was drawn to living in Price. She enjoys the close access to outdoor activities and particularly enjoys hiking. She has two dogs, Penny and Finn. Her family resides in Texas. In addition to her mother being a teacher, she and her two older brothers are all professors. The Turner family clearly values education and learning.
Katherine Vela grew up in Houston, Texas. When she was in sixth grade, she saw a bumper sticker that read, “I make a difference: I teach.” This had a big impact on young Vela who knew from then on that she wanted to be a teacher.
Vela graduated from Texas A&M and began teaching fifth grade math and science in Spring, Texas. Her experiences watching her students learn, grow and develop a love of learning solidified her feelings that she was meant to be a teacher.
She decided to continue her education and moved to Bryan, Texas to pursue her master’s degree. She taught fifth grade while going to school at night. She was encouraged to pursue an administrator certificate which she earned from Lamar University. She became an instructional coach for a year and assisted teachers in curriculum planning. Aside from teaching, this was her favorite job.
She became the assistant principal for her school for a year, but this is not where her passion was. At this time, she was also an adjunct professor at Texas A&M where she was teaching pre-service teachers. Vela enjoyed working with these students who appreciated her practical advice since she was still working in an elementary school. She found that she loved helping teachers and having an impact on education through many classrooms, not just her own.
Her mentor, Dr. Robert Capraro at Texas A&M, encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. As she finished the school year as assistant principal, she decided it was time to begin her journey through graduate school. During her studies, she had the opportunity to be a STEM camp director. One summer she hosted an all-female camp that focused on changing young women’s perceptions of STEM. Vela was able to use this research and find ways to implement these teaching strategies into classrooms across the country.
She was drawn to USU because of its degree plans that are accessible across Utah. She found the interviewing committee to be welcoming, supportive and was impressed by their teamwork. She loves the Price campus for its small size and great location. She loves exploring the surrounding area.
Vela and her partner Ruben Lopez were engaged in March and will get married in November. She has a stepson, Jaden, and two dogs, Sophie and Kimber.
Vela enjoys traveling during her breaks from school and hiking and exploring on the weekends.
Turner and Vela are working together towards shared goals. They hope to start a summer STEM camp for elementary-age children in the community. They want to help children learn about different career fields available to them, have exposure to the university, connect to local resources, as well as having fun and learning. The summer camp would be an opportunity for pre-service teachers at USU Eastern to gain experience teaching. Turner and Vela also hope to build relationships and support teachers in the surrounding area.
Vela offers advice to pre-service teachers, “Go in knowing that every day is going to be different and sometimes not go as planned. Seeing growth in students makes all the bad days worth it. Teaching is a very rewarding career. It’s a great way to give back and see those students succeed.”
Turner offers her support to anyone interested in elementary education. They are welcome to ask her questions about the program, or anyone needing resources. “Anyone can always come talk to me.”