The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Her legacy of love and strength

Students and colleagues reflect on Patty Cunningham’s mark on the world

Patti Cunningham

The Ohio State University Alumni Association’s Josephine Sitterle Failer Award is being posthumously awarded to Patty Cunningham ’02, ’05 MA, ’11 PhD.

Patty Cunningham was a force — for good, for change, for inspiration.

The founder of Ohio State’s Department of Social Change in the Office of Student Life, Cunningham began her Ohio State journey as an undergraduate. She earned a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies in 2002 and continued on for her master’s and doctorate in educational policy and leadership, earning those degrees in 2005 and 2011, respectively.

Cunningham served as director of civic engagement and student engagement for about a year before developing and leading the Department of Social Change, which works to end generational poverty, especially as it relates to educational disparities. Within and outside that capacity, she mentored many Ohio State students from underrepresented groups, and she was known for constantly going above and beyond the expectations of her roles.

Sadly, Cunningham was taken from this world in February at the age of 37. Now, the Ohio State University Alumni Association’s Josephine Sitterle Failer Award recognizes her undying devotion to students and colleagues who were touched by her life and continue her work.

Here, some of those individuals share how Cunningham affected their lives and the world:

Ashley Pryor ’13, ’15 MS, interim director of the Department of Social Change, worked with Cunningham.

“[She came] from Section 8 housing — statistically not supposed to make it, statistically not supposed to be able to do all of these things. I think that’s why she was our unicorn. Because she didn’t let people tell her what she was supposed to be. She created that for herself.”

Liza Reed ’06, ’10 MS, knew Cunningham as a friend and colleague.

“Ohio State meant a lot to her and, in getting her PhD from Ohio State, she became a success story that she then wanted to show people they could replicate. Like, ‘I am not special. You can do this too.’”

Mason Pierce ’12, was one of Cunningham’s mentees.

“When I first got to college, I didn’t have, really, that much of a civic mindset. It was more just, ‘I’m going to go to school, I’m going to get my degree, and I’m going to get a job.’ Now, I put service right up there with my career. I’m involved with a homeless shelter in Toledo. I’m vice president of a separate charitable organization. I still volunteer. Whenever people ask me, I want to help out, and I never would have been like that had it not been for Patty.”

Gary Bearden ’11 knew Cunningham as a mentor and, like Pierce, was part of a book club, Enigma, that she formed to help increase students’ cultural awareness and networks.

“She immediately recognized something in me that I never really thought about. Being Mexican-American and growing up in Marysville — which is predominantly white — I never really had to interact with groups of non-white students or non-white professionals or families.

“She talked a lot about the importance of having a group of people you count on and who count on you. It was what she referred to as an ‘urban family.’”

Lucy Ramos ’11, was co-founder of Enigma’s sister group, Unplugging Society, which Cunningham advised.

“I think Patty just had this crazy, kind of, empathy. She has known, and I mean deeply known, so many people just because she lived her life always on the go, always spending time with other people, always with an open heart and just being a really good listener.”

Pryor, who carries on Cunningham’s work in the Department of Social Change, speaks for many who knew and loved her.

“It’s been sad to not see her here in the physical [sense], but at the same time, she has a legacy. She’s left so many soldiers out here that I get a little piece of her by interactions with folks who know her in different stages. So it’s been nice to be able to have that community. I think that’s a beautiful gift she’s given all of us who have been close to her and miss her, that we can find a piece of her in each of us.”