Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Republic held a drive-through graduation ceremony.
Diana Summitt recalled the day a Springfield teacher walked into her fourth-grade class and changed the trajectory of her life.
That teacher brought news of a new magnet program for fifth-graders called WOLF, or the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility. It was an immersive, hands-on program in environmental science and conservation.
“I have always loved animals. I have always loved being outdoors,” Summitt said. “But, without WOLF, I would not be where I am today.”
Summitt graduated from Missouri State University in May with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, a critical step in her plan to become a veterinarian.
In an interview with the News-Leader, the first-generation college graduate reflected on a childhood filled with poverty and neglect and how Springfield schools, teachers — and selection to that magnet school — became a lifeline.
Summitt said her parents struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse and, as a result, had a hard time finding and keeping jobs. She said there was emotional and physical abuse. Food, especially in the summer, was scarce.
“School was really an amazing place for me because I got to be away from that — and I got to follow my passion,” she said.
“I knew if I stuck with school and had close relationships with my teachers that I could do better for myself.”
She said the family moved from one place to the next, sometimes living without running water or electricity. But, they typically remained in the same part of town.
“One thing they did well is let me stay in the same schools. That was really important to me,” said Summitt, who attended Boyd Elementary, Pipkin Middle School and Central High School.
It was in fourth grade at Boyd that she asked teacher Roger King what steps she had to take land her dream job. He did not brush her off.
“He said ‘If you want to be a veterinarian, here is what you have to do.’ He said I’d have to graduate high school, get an undergraduate degree and then I would have to apply to veterinary school,” she recalled. “I knew very early on that if I stuck with my education, it would liberate me from where I was.”
Summitt said once she found out about WOLF, she bugged her parents until they let her apply but it was a teacher who helped her fill out and fax the application.
She was selected for the inaugural year but immediately encountered an obstacle. The district does not offer busing to and from magnet programs — a change the district plans to study during the 2020-21 year — and her family did not have reliable transportation.
“Asking for help is hard and it feels bad but without that help, I would not be where I am today,” she said.
Unsure where to turn, she confided in a teacher. It would not be the last time.
“I had teachers buy me food or bring me clothes. I had teachers that would give me bus passes…because we never had a vehicle,” she recalled. “As early as fifth grade, I was riding the city bus to and from school by myself.”
Summitt said the extra effort was worth it. In WOLF, she tested water quality in streams and went fishing, hunting and rock climbing. She also learned the right way to handle a variety of animals, from snakes to birds.
“That experience, in turn, led to others,” she said.
For years, starting in middle school, she volunteered at what is now called Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium as part of the Tomorrow’s Naturalists Today, or TNT, program.
“I volunteered whenever I wasn’t at school, at WOW. I was trained to handle animals and to take care of them and educate the public about them. It helped with my public speaking,” she said. “Through that experience, I built a network of people who knew who I was and that I wanted to work with animals.”
At age 15, she was connected to Beverly Sherman, a veterinarian at VCA Parkcrest Animal Hospital and Pet Lodge, and was able to observe her work. Summitt started to work in the kennel and promoted to veterinary assistant.
“Without WOLF school, I wouldn’t have made the connections, gotten the experience or put myself out there the same way I did,” she said.
Ben Hackenwerth, executive director of innovation and information in the district, said Summitt is an exemplary model for how magnet programs can energize, empower and motivate students.
The district also offers magnet programs in health sciences, and STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — and will open a fine arts option this fall. A program in agriculture, in partnership with Missouri State, is in the pipeline.
“Our hope is we spark an interest or we spark a love in a particular pathway that they, maybe, never knew they had or wouldn’t have been exposed to in a traditional setting,” he said. “We want these to be unique and formative experiences.”
Summitt, who still works with the same veterinarian, said obtaining that job while in high school was a turning point. At age 16, she became the only person in her house with a steady paycheck.
She said tension grew and she was kicked out. She stayed with a family for a while but was asked to leave.
At 17, with nowhere to go, she texted a middle school teacher she’d remained close to during high school. That teacher, Jean Haynes, is now retired.
“The night I needed to move out of one home…I just texted her and said ‘I, unfortunately, have nowhere else to go, I’m going to head over and figure it out in the morning. She said ‘No problem,'” Summitt recalled. “And that morning, on the way to school, she said I was just going to live with her.”
She said while Jean and her husband Mike were not her foster parents, legally, that is how she views them. They have stayed in close touch.
After graduating from Central High in 2016, Summitt enrolled at MSU. “I have always loved being on the beautiful campus. I love walking around and I have learned so much about the world around me.”
She spent one year in the residence halls and then moved into an apartment with Parker Lawson, who is now her husband. They married on Halloween 2019.
Both Summitt and her husband work during college. He is a student at Ozarks Technical Community College. They sought financial aid and took out student loans to make ends meet.
Summitt said she ended up taking in a younger brother, who lived with the couple until he graduated from high school.
She said despite earning a 4.0 GPA during multiple semesters, she had rough patches and turned to her college advisor for help.
“Here I am, graduating on time,” she said. “I am the first in my family to graduate from college.”
This fall, Summitt will return to Missouri State as a graduate assistant and will pursue a master’s degree. After that, she plans to apply for veterinary school in Australia, where she wants to work on exotic animals and wildlife conservation.
“Honestly, I sometimes want to give up but I don’t. I’m stubborn. I want to do better,” she said. “I want to have a family of my own someday and I don’t want them to experience anything that I have experienced.”
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com and consider supporting vital local journalism by subscribing. Learn more by visiting News-Leader.com/subscribe.
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