Early on, she lived in a school bus; today, she has her Ph.D.
In March of 1995, 20-year-old single mom Amy Van Wey was in debt and alone, living with her newborn son in a school bus in the Little Applegate Valley. “It was not a great combination,” she says.
With the help of her family, Van Wey eventually found a waitressing job and moved into an apartment, but it wasn’t a life the former straight-A student wanted. When Van Wey’s son was six months old, she made a momentous decision.
“I can’t do this,” she remembers thinking. “I can’t raise a son on minimum wage. I need to go to school.”
She started at Rogue Community College when her son was 18 months old. After completing all the math courses at RCC, she knew she needed to transfer to a university. At that time, tuition at the local university was $3,000 a year, half of her total income. A neighbor read about the Ford Opportunity Scholars Program from The Ford Family Foundation, available to single parents seeking a bachelor’s degree. Van Wey quickly applied and was accepted. “It was amazing,” Van Wey says. “It was life-altering. Even now, I get teary thinking about it.”
That was the start of a highly successful higher education career that saw her graduating from Willamette University in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a master’s degree, also in mathematics, in 2004 from Oregon State University, and a doctorate in 2013 from Massey University in New Zealand in nutrition/mathematical biology. Today, she works as a post-doctoral scientist and mathematical modeler in New Zealand.
‘Give it up’
Van Wey had a happy childhood in Central Point, growing up as an extremely shy tomboy who excelled in academics. “Education was not a huge thing in my family,” she says, “but working hard and using your brain was important.”
Even though she was an excellent student, there was no expectation from Van Wey’s family or high school that she would go to college. In fact, that path was discouraged.
After receiving straight As and a math award at age 14, Van Wey told her mom her dream was to go to university. “She flat out told me to give it up,” Van Wey remembers. “My parents made too much money to get financial aid and not enough to pay for college.”
When she was 16, Van Wey dropped out of school in favor of working full time, only to return her senior year after realizing that she needed more than her GED to be successful. She took extra classes to graduate on time, ultimately finishing in the top 10% of students at Crater High School. Then came several years of minimum wage jobs and an unexpected pregnancy, eventually culminating in her decision to go on to college — this time supported by her mother and other family members.
A rewarding career
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Van Wey taught briefly for Teach For America, then worked as a math teacher at Rogue Community College. After earning her master’s degree, she taught at Oregon State University, Willamette University and Clackamas Community College.
She moved to New Zealand seven years ago with her son to participate in a doctoral program, and married after submitting her doctoral thesis in 2013.
Even in that program, she was considered a nontraditional student. Van Wey received the Earle Food Research Fellowship, which funded her doctoral program. At a student colloquium, a speaker told the audience that they would do their best research before they were 35. “I looked at this girl next to me, another older student, and jokingly said, ‘Well, we might as well give up now!’ I was 39.”
Zonta Club honor
Last year, she received a prestigious science award from the Zonta Club of Wellington, which included a prize of $15,000. In her acceptance speech, she named Hallie Ford as one of the major figures influencing her life.
“Hallie, through her scholarship program, paid for 90% of my tuition, books and living during the three years required for me to finish my bachelor’s degree,” Van Wey said.
“That gave me the freedom to balance life as a full-time student and parent — eliminating the stress of having to work during the school year. But her generosity did not stop there. Because I graduated in the top 12% of my class, she continued to pay 80% of these costs during my master’s degree.”
Van Wey encourages other single parents to think big. “I say, truly look at your life and ask if this is what you want and if it’s not, change it,” Van Wey says. “It’s never easy but it’s hella worth it.”