Career experiences guide Jennifer Sturgeon in leading ECSE graduate program

Jen Sturgeon headshot with white background

Career experiences guide Jennifer Sturgeon in leading ECSE graduate program

27 Jan 2023     By Kelcey Buck

Since earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2004 as one of the first graduates of the inclusive early childhood education program, Jennifer Sturgeon has dedicated her career to early childhood special education. Now she’s back at her alma mater helping train early childhood special education (ECSE) teachers and early intervention (EI) specialists. 

Sturgeon joined the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders on an interim basis a year ago, but officially joined the faculty as assistant professor of practice and coordinator of the ECSE program in August 2022. In the time between her bachelor’s degree and her return as a faculty member, Sturgeon also earned a master’s degree in educational administration in 2011 and a doctorate in educational leadership in 2019 from UNL to go with a master’s in early childhood education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2007. 

“When the opportunity came up to serve as the interim coordinator for the ECSE program, I was interested and excited,” Sturgeon said. “Being able to teach at the university where I got my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate was a dream come true.” 

Sturgeon spent 14 years with Omaha Public Schools, gaining experience as an ECSE teacher at the preschool level and later as a supervisor in early intervention who led the staff who provided home visiting and family-centered services. 

“These experiences help me relate to students who are working toward their ECSE (ages 3-5) and early intervention (birth-age 2) endorsements,” Sturgeon said. “All of my experiences, whether it be teaching, supervising teachers, working as an adjunct, training or coaching, have led me to this career. I feel that in this faculty role I can truly make a difference and impact the lives of teachers in the ECSE/EI program, which in turn impacts many children and families.” 

As a trainer and coach in the field of early childhood, Sturgeon has traveled to more than 25 states to provide professional development and hands-on support to teachers in the past few years. She has also provided training and coaching virtually. She credits these experiences with providing her opportunities to continue learning from others, as well as giving her real-life examples to use in her teaching. 

Since the university’s ECSE program is offered entirely online, many students come from outside Nebraska. Sturgeon said she has enjoyed the opportunity to learn about special education services in other states through her students. 

“Having out-of-state students makes the collaboration and discussion among students richer,” Sturgeon said. “Having a diverse group of teachers throughout the United States share their unique experiences and perspectives with their classmates has enhanced their learning. It also gives me opportunities to share Nebraska resources with out-of-state students who are always in awe of what is being done in ECSE/EI in Nebraska.” 

As she looks ahead, Sturgeon has three main goals for 2023 – prepare students to work with ECSE/EI children in inclusive settings by shifting the coursework to focus on a practitioner model; increase hands-on opportunities for students to interact with families and other professionals in-person; and focus more on behavior supports and self-care. 

“The emphasis will be on teaching strategies and interventions to graduate students so they can confidently and effectively provide services to benefit the young children on their caseloads,” Sturgeon said. “I am hopeful this year will give our students more experiences to directly interact with families. Those learning experiences not only increase their comfort level with the home visiting process, but also prepare them for their future roles. 

“Teacher retention continues to be a challenge in the field of ECSE/EI, so I hope to provide more strategies and supports to teachers to help with challenges they face daily in their settings, particularly to support the social-emotional needs of the children they work with. The field of ECSE/EI is a challenging but rewarding field to work in. Every day is different, and providers are constantly on-the-go and supporting others, so it is crucial that they take time to care for themselves as well.”

Special Education and Communication Disorders