Helping students succeed is an honor for Wacker

David Wacker

David Wacker, professor of pediatrics and curriculum and instruction at the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, is this year’s recipient of the college’s Distinguished Mentor Award. Photo by Tim Schoon.

“He always worked with his door open, he always had time for a ‘quick question’ that could last well over an hour in discussion, he always let you know you had the ability and the knowledge to answer or find the answer to your own question, and he encouraged independent thinking, development of new ideas, and ways in which to serve and meet the needs of children and families who were in real crisis.”

—Jennifer M. Asmus, PhD, psychology professor, University of Wisconsin–Madison, former student under David Wacker, in a nomination letter for his being named Distinguished Mentor.

The sign near the door in David Wacker’s office, located in the second level of the Center for Disabilities and Development, reads, “From your students, with thanks for making us believe in ourselves.”

That plaque, given to him by his first group of graduate students in 1986, summarizes the storied 30-year career of a man who had no intentions of teaching but became a professor admired and respected by both his students and his peers.

“I was not geared toward teaching or I would not have come to a college of medicine,” says Wacker, professor of pediatrics and curriculum and instruction at the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and this year’s recipient of the college’s Distinguished Mentor Award. “I would have gone to a liberal arts college.

“I really wasn’t thinking about having students much,” he says.

Fate intervened when, as director of research for the Division of Developmental Disabilities in the Department of Pediatrics, Wacker was approached by three students at the end of their doctoral studies who wanted to work by his side and learn from him.

At that time there was no program for the students who were interested in learning more about research in applied behavior analysis. For the students, taking time to work with Wacker meant postponing their PhD for at least a year. For Wacker, it was the start of a completely different career.

A year later, those three students went on to receive PhDs, and Wacker helped to create a program for students to get some hands-on research experience.

“Thirty PhD students have graduated from this program now,” Wacker says. “Almost all of them are in special education or school psychology departments.”

“Dr. Wacker’s influence as a mentor, advisor, and clinician has had a significant impact on the work that I have done over the last 20 years. As I work day in and day out with predoctoral interns and postdoctoral fellows within our own program here at Boys Town, I am often influenced by the way that Dave supported me, and I strive every day to provide the same level of commitment and energy to my students as that which Dave provided to me.”

—Thomas M. Reimers, PhD, director, Behavioral Health Clinic, Boys Town, in his nomination letter.

Wacker, who is a clinical behavior specialist and behavioral researcher, knows he has a unique relationship with his students—past and present. Part of that, he says, are the students themselves. The program isn’t required; students seek it out on their own, knowing full well the sacrifices they’ll make along the way.

“It’s not going to make getting a PhD any easier; in fact, it’s going to cost them more time and more money,” Wacker says. “Our clinic is focused on kids with behavior disorders, so it’s not easy work. I think the students do this because they want to be as good clinically as is possible.”

The Carver College’s Distinguished Mentor Award is not the first award of this type he’s received—in 2007, Wacker was named a fellow by the Association for Behavior Analysis International, the highest recognition of professional contribution in the field of behavioral analysis, and received the graduate mentor award from the same organization. Yet he remains humbled not as much by the award but by his students’ successes and their gratitude and appreciation for his help in getting them there.

“Having a role in their education is different from how outstandingly well they have done,” Wacker says. “They’ve done very, very well. My message out to them is this: This is really their award because if they had done poorly no one would have given me an award for teaching them. They did this, this is theirs.”

“He exemplifies what it means to be a mentor by selflessly placing his students’ learning above his own career advancement in order to further advance our careers through the various opportunities that he provides to us on an individual basis. His mentorship has been as persistent as his work with individuals with disabilities who engage in severe challenging behaviors, in that he continually raises his expectations of each of his students by instilling in us a love for our work and a commitment to continually achieve.”

—Kelly M. Schieltz, current student/mentee at The University of Iowa, in her nomination letter.