A police car rolled past as he walked to school. The officer exchanged glances with the teen. When the car turned into his driveway, he knew he either had to go home and deal with his family’s legal troubles or face reality later.
Dakota Pawlicki ’09 went on to school. He wasn’t surprised to later learn he and his mother had been evicted from their Northern Illinois home. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it would be the last.
He called his best friend’s parents, saying simply ‘come get me.’ He met them with a few boxes and small suitcase of clothes. Once unloaded, he went to school to fill in as conductor of the musical.
Dakota’s situation left LaDon Schneider speechless. She is the mom who took him in; along with her husband, Mike, and son, Andrew. Dakota had a bedroom in their house and a place in their lives beginning at 7. All he wanted was a secure roof over his head and an education.
When her son befriended Dakota in first grade, LaDon wondered why he didn’t know his phone number. It had been disconnected too many times—just one consequence of his mother’s mental illness and substance abuse. By 14 he was supporting his older siblings and negotiating with bill collectors.
He and Andrew were as different as night and day, but as close as brothers. Andrew was athletic and an excellent student. Dakota maintained average grades and was too small to compete. He tried out for band hoping to play trombone. His arms were so short he ended up with the baritone. Realizing music provided an escape from his house, he joined marching band and musicals.
College wasn’t even a thought. There was a gas station with a hiring notice that he walked by often. He assumed he’d work there someday. But there were too many people in McHenry, a rural river town of 27,000, who thought otherwise.
One of those was 23-year-old high school band director Brian Weidner ’01, a first-year teacher when the two met. Dakota, who stood eye-to-eye with the sousaphone, helped move band equipment from a trailer.
“He was the first kid to show up and the last kid to leave. He is still the standard I hold my students to,” Brian said.
Dakota’s dedication and desperate family life inspired Brian and his colleagues to figure out how they could get him to college. He thought Illinois State would be a good fit, with Dakota’s interest in music education. Brian arranged a campus visit that rewrote Dakota’s future, despite the fact a mandatory School of Music audition didn’t go well. The professor called it the worst he’d ever heard. And yet he accepted Dakota, convinced he would work hard.
Applying for every scholarship he could find, Dakota was overwhelmed with support. A Golden Apple Scholar, he received Illinois State’s Horatio Alger Scholarship for students facing adversity and the Mary Jo Brown Scholarship, as well as help from Friends of the Arts. The financial awards were so generous and constant, he graduated debt free.
“If I hadn’t been accepted at ISU, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” Dakota said. “ISU felt so much like home to me because it was like the community that got me there. Throughout my childhood, there were all these people who went out of their way to look out for me. That’s what I experienced at ISU too, especially in the School of Music.”
Dakota dug in, got perfect grades, and became involved. He cofounded and became president of Urban Needs in Teacher Education (UNITE), which he later developed into a national nonprofit.
While student teaching at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago, Dakota was desperate for a job. An ISU faculty member contacted Robert Lee, executive director of ISU’s urban education teacher preparation program, the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline (CTEP). He knew Dakota through UNITE and offered him a part-time job based on his track record.
Dakota taught during the day, started work at 4 p.m., and stayed until the last person left. His dedication resulted in a job offer as director of bands at the Chicago school, fulfilling his goal to teach in an urban setting.
Life took another turn when Robert sought a federal Teacher Quality Partnership grant that supports urban education, and Dakota offered to help. He helped design STEP-UP, the Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Preparation, which puts students in Chicago Public School classrooms while also serving at community-based organizations during an intense four-week program.
The money was awarded, allowing Dakota to join the Pipeline staff after his first year of teaching. Now 28, he is an administrator with Chicago Public School’s Office of Career Success. The position far exceeds what Dakota envisioned in his future while still a struggling teen.
“I’m most grateful for the people in my life who have taken a chance on me. They didn’t have to give me a scholarship. I didn’t have to be let into the School of Music. My life is sprinkled with opportunities that have been provided by people just trying to do good in the world,” he said.
“There is this cyclical nature of getting help and giving help, which you have to do in order to really succeed. Now it’s my turn to give back.”
Dakota is grateful he can support Illinois State students by investing annually in the Gladly We Give Campaign. “I know this money will go back to students who really need it,” he said. “Knowing I was the beneficiary of those gifts, I make a recurring gift.”
LaDon, who still gets a card from Dakota every Mother’s Day, isn’t a bit surprised by his story and determination to lift up others with the same support he experienced throughout life and especially at ISU.
“All we asked him to do was pay it forward and he already has,” she said. “He doesn’t help one child, he helps hundreds.”