Peterson Champions Diverse Ideas and Cultures, Helps Organize UI Powwow

By Lynn Anderson Davy
UI Strategic Communication

Tracy Peterson’s philosophy doesn’t leave room for missed opportunities, for himself or for others.

“There is a Maori saying that goes something like this: ‘The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon; the person with a wide vision sees a wide horizon,’” says Peterson. “I have always tried to be a person who sees the widest horizon possible.”

And for Peterson, director of diversity programs and K–12 outreach in the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering, this means looking for as many ways as possible to engage children from diverse backgrounds in the study of science, technology, engineering, and math. Peterson is especially focused on reaching children from underrepresented groups, including Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans, and also works with children from rural communities.

“We all want to better ourselves, and I believe we can do so and also help others at the same time,” he says. “For me, this type of thinking, this focus on human connections and inclusion, is what motivates me.”

Peterson’s efforts to increase student diversity in the College of Engineering, and in STEM fields in general, have not gone unnoticed. Participation in the college’s K–12 educational programs has increased since Peterson was hired five years ago, and new programs aimed at bringing more minority children into the STEM fields are gaining traction. Peterson also is working to strengthen relationships with minority communities, including Latino families in West Liberty and Marshalltown, Iowa, and students and staff at the Meskwaki Settlement Schools, an organization of tribal schools in Tama, Iowa. He also is organizing a new summer learning camp through Upward Bound, a federally funded program that serves students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For these and other achievements, Peterson is one of five recipients of the UI’s annual Diversity Catalyst Awards. The awards honor members of the campus community who have enhanced diversity at the UI through innovative means, and who have shown a dedication to diversity.

Tonya Peeples, associate dean of diversity and outreach at the College of Engineering and keynote speaker for the 2018 awards ceremony, says Peterson exemplifies these qualities.

“Tracy has made great contributions to student success and engagement by building relationships with a variety of stakeholders,” she says. “He has become a recognizable leader in representing the university with diverse communities locally, regionally, and nationally. His efforts are not only important for the university, but also for the future of engineering.”

Peterson has dedicated much of his professional life to supporting and empowering minority students, especially Native Americans. Before coming to the UI, he worked in student-oriented positions at Cornell University; Dickinson State University; the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and the University of Minnesota, Morris. When the diversity outreach job at the UI’s College of Engineering opened, Peterson says he jumped at the chance to return to the campus where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“I’m a Hawkeye and I always will be,” says Peterson, whose wife, Nicole, is a faculty member at the UI College of Nursing and a citizen of the Menominee Nation, and whose two children attend the UI. “I feel so fortunate to be back on the same campus where I studied. Now, I’m helping others to navigate their paths and helping by giving back to this institution that helped me achieve my career goals. I’ve traveled full circle.”

Besides his work at the College of Engineering, Peterson has taken a special interest in the UI’s Native American Student Association (NASA), which organizes an annual powwow. The 24th Annual UI Powwow andFirst Annual UI Round Dance will take place at the UI Field House on April 13–14, with students taking the lead in event setup and promotion. Peterson says the group of students in charge of this year’s powwow includes a mix of students with Native American heritage as well others with a genuine interest in preserving Native American culture. Peterson himself is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

“I think it’s great that we can have a group such as the Native American Student Association on campus so that there can be discussions about native peoples and their cultures,” says Peterson. “There are a lot of stereotypes and it’s great that we have Native American students who can answer questions about their heritage. They might only be able to give a sliver of the big picture, but the fact that someone can delve into Native American culture right here on campus, and witness a powwow or round dance, is very positive.”

Native American students especially relate to Peterson and appreciate his support, which is given enthusiastically and often after scheduled office hours.

“Tracy’s contributions are essential to the support and retention of Native American students at Iowa,” says Jessica Owens, a junior from Sioux Center who serves as vice president of NASA and is a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation. “He has played an important role in helping me find my place on campus, and for this I am tremendously grateful. Tracy truly deserves a ton of praise for all of his incredible work and the ways in which he has helped students create a place for themselves on this campus.”

Peterson and his wife also serve on the university’s Native American Council, which aims to promote and improve the quality of life of Native American faculty, staff, and students. He also is a member of the UI’s Talent@Iowa Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, which recently submitted recommendations and strategies to acquire, promote, and retain diverse faculty and staff. Campus members who have worked with Peterson on these efforts appreciate his input and leadership.

“Tracy is a skilled listener, and he respects diverse thinking and experiences,” says Candace Peters, an organizational consultant and leadership coach for the Office of Human Resources’ Department of Organizational Effectiveness. “He is truly an exceptional colleague, and it’s because of his numerous creative efforts that the UI is moving forward to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. His vision has created an opportunity for change at the UI.”

Going forward, Peterson says his goal is to complete a doctorate in educational leadership and continue his work on campus and in the community. He is especially excited about the honoring ceremony for graduating NASA seniors that will be performed at the powwow for the first time this year. Peterson hopes the ceremony will become an annual tradition.

“You’re not just going to see Native American students recognized, but also non-native students who have dedicated their time and energy to creating community and helping to further the mission of the NASA group,” says Peterson. “To me, that is the beauty of it, that it is a community-wide celebration that enables everyone to walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. I think it’s going to be awesome.”

As director of diversity programs and K–12 outreach in the University of Iowa College of Engineering, Tracy Peterson looks for ways to increase STEM learning opportunities for minority children. A citizen of the Navajo Nation, he also helped revitalize the annual UI Powwow, an event spotlighting Native American culture. Photo by Tim Schoon.