Dawn Cripe will never forget the announcement on March 12, 2020, that the University of Nebraska at Omaha would shut down the campus for two weeks.
“We were on campus watching the documentary, ‘Freedom Writers,’ then boom we don’t come to campus anymore,” Cripe said.
She recalled feeling shocked when the world took a 180 turn so quickly after the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic forced teachers like Cripe to convert her in-person classes to Zoom sessions.
In addition to adjusting to virtual teaching, Cripe also faced anxiety about being there for her son Jack and caring for her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s, who at the time lived in Idaho.
When times did get the best of Cripe, she said her son Jack provided relief from the harsh reality. She shared how a picture Jack drew gave her perspective on the pandemic.
“He drew a picture of an alien spaceship landing on the moon, and a guy in a lab coat holding up a vial saving the world from COVID,” Cripe said. “I think about how the art from these young kids are coming out of these world-altering experiences, art that helps us see history and humanities, feelings and preserves it for all time.”
The same mission of preserving experiences is exactly what Cripe does in teaching women’s history, and her efforts were recognized in September of 2020.
Cripe received the Mary Ann Lamanna Award for Excellence in Women and Gender Studies, which honored her passion for women-oriented history and years of service.
The award, given yearly, began in 2005, the same year Cripe started teaching at UNO. Cripe said she appreciates receiving the most esteemed award of her career and the journey it took to get here. “I have been preparing my whole life for this.”
Cripe’s passion for teaching women studies stems from a time in her life when she experienced the Women’s Liberation Movement. She was a high school student in the 1970s, a pivotal moment for women’s rights and human rights in general.
“At that time, my best friend and I would stand at the end of her parent’s sun porch and sing at the top of our lungs the Helen Reddy ‘I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” Cripe said.
Fast forward to when Cripe enrolled in UNO’s Intro to Woman and Gender Studies class taught by Dr. Karen Falconer Al-Hindi. Which is the same course Cripe teaches today.
Falconer Al-Hindi ended up on Cripe’s thesis committee as she worked on earning her master of arts degree in communication. Al-Hindi later invited Cripe to teach the Intro to Women and Gender Studies class.
“Somebody else believed in me that I could do this,” Cripe said. “Teaching is something that I wanted to do my whole life.”
When Cripe taught the class for the first time, she fell in love immediately. Her class met on Saturdays, and Cripe said many people predicted students wouldn’t show up. But she came to class dressed in a white tee and jeans with a box of donuts, ready to teach to a full classroom.
Cripe said she loved the eagerness of her students, they were excited to be taught something that could change their lives for the greater good. She also attributes the community that helped her put this class together.
She reiterates that It’s important to her to have a community of people and relationships. Cripe’s students benefited from guest lecturers including opera singers, band members, business owners, and artists.
“Hearing from those people who are passionate advocates, bringing the experience of others to her class,” Cripe said. “When the students move on from my class into their careers, they can have access to those same connections of people.”
Cripe had her eyes opened to the world around her and had people who supported her, and she wants to do the same for her students.
“As the tides rise, all ships sail together, that’s how that quote goes right,” Cripe said, laughing.
Cripe said she has never felt deterred from her dream of teaching, although nowadays she feels like society is going backward in terms of women and equal rights.
“How can I teach in this environment now? But I had to stop myself and ask, how can I not teach in this environment? We have to talk about the scars that we have,” Cripe said. “Yes, they may have healed but they are not gone, and we have to understand the scars and how we move past them and how we can all help.”
This sense of wanting to do more than teaching for her students is why she was destined to win the Mary Ann Lamana award.
“Her engagement with Omaha’s diverse communities enhances and enlarges what a community-university activist can be and do,” Falconer Al-Hindi said. “I was fortunate to have Dawn as a student, so I feel as though I’ve known her since both of our beginnings in the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) program.”
Recognition for her work is not just a reflection of Cripe but of all the knowledge she has gained, which she shares with her students. Still, Cripe can’t help to geek out over the award. “Mary Ann Lamanna isn’t just a piece of history,” Cripe said. “She is still alive and very much here.”
She points to her award, “I keep this thing polished.”