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Investing in Education for a Stronger Society

Mary Kay (right) and Lee Sommers (left), established scholarships in the College of Education for students and graduates

Mary Kay and Lee Sommers understand the importance of education, both as students and teachers, and feel that “education is critical if we want to ensure that our country maintains a strong, productive society.” One way to ensure that every child receives a good education is to make sure that they have access to passionate and educated teachers. Mary Kay and Lee say that their supportive families and teachers gave them an education that “enabled us to achieve many goals that were unimaginable when we were young.”

Lee grew up on a farm in southern Wisconsin. After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin, he joined the Purdue Department of Agronomy faculty in 1970. He taught, conducted research, and did outreach for 15 years before accepting a position at Colorado State University, where he worked until his retirement in 2013.

Mary Kay was born and raised in Lafayette, where she returned to build her career in teaching after receiving her bachelor’s from Indiana State University and her master’s from Indiana University. She taught all grades from kindergarten to grade 6 at schools in Lafayette, Kokomo, and West Lafayette. While teaching full-time, she was encouraged to start taking classes at Purdue to get her doctorate in education.

Working full-time and taking doctorate-level coursework simultaneously is extremely challenging, but Mary Kay says that with the help of her professors, she realized how important it was for her to pursue her higher goals. She persevered and with her doctorate went on to serve as an elementary school principal in West Lafayette and in Colorado. She even went on to become the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. This gave her the opportunity to speak around the world on behalf of children with educational needs, including to the U.S. Congressional Education Committee.

Lee and Mary Kay felt that one way to pay back those who invested in them was to assist the next generation on their path. Over the years they have established several scholarships to support undergraduate students in the College of Education, including one named in tribute of Mary Kay’s mother, Lola Schneider, who was always a strong supporter of higher education.

Their most recent gift was used to establish an endowment supporting graduate students in the College of Education. Like Mary Kay, many graduate students in education are also working full-time. This means that as part-time students, they do not qualify for many sources of aid. Mary Kay and Lee’s intention was “to create a fund that was flexible and could meet a variety of graduate student needs such as a stipend, travel to professional conferences, supplies needed for research, and so forth.”

Mary Kay and Lee say that they “are firm believers in the societal role that Purdue plays as Indiana’s land-grant university.” They feel that Purdue is a first-class institution, with outstanding teaching and research programs, which Mary Kay is proud to call her alma mater.  The couple says that “supporting education at institutions that enabled us to achieve higher goals is an easy, powerful way to give back and make a difference in our country and world.”

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