Ashford Faculty of the Month July 2020: Dr. Peggy Sundstrom
By Ashford University Staff
If you want to see Forbes School of Business and Technology Lead Faculty Dr. Peggy Sundstrom in her element, chances are you’ll need to be comfortable around dogs or getting outdoors. Most likely, both.
In addition to being lead faculty for the doctoral program in Organizational Development and Leadership, she’s a dedicated conservationist who’s extremely active with Ducks Unlimited, including sitting on the board for Ducks Unlimited de Mexico (DUMAC). One of the big draws for Dr. Sundstrom was the education component in working with DUMAC.
“We have programs to teach environmental science to people throughout Mexico and Latin America,” she explains. “We teach conservation to other scientists and government officials to help them promote those efforts in other countries. We have a Teach the Teacher Programs to bring conservation into the k–12 schools in Mexico.”
This passionate pet lover has also raised 19 puppies in the past 19 years. Four of them were competition hunting dogs for her family while the other 15 went on to become guide dogs for the visually impaired.
“The only photos I’m in, there’s either a dog or a fish in the picture,” laughs Dr. Sundstrom. Peggy and her husband enjoy fly fishing throughout their home state of Colorado and have made it their mission to fish in all 50 states. So far, they’re about halfway to their goal.
A few years back, the couple bought an Airstream and knocked a big chunk of states off that bucket list by driving (and fishing) from Colorado to Alaska. “The trip of a lifetime,” Dr. Sundstrom calls it.
At home, with the Rocky Mountains as her backdrop, you’re likely to find her gathering fresh ingredients from the yard to chef up a delicious meal.
“I love cooking. It’s a very creative outlet. We entertain quite a bit, or at least did before coronavirus,” says Dr. Sundstrom. “We’re kind of modern-day hunter-gatherers. We have an orchard, beehives, a big veggie garden. I can and freeze vegetables.”
She also sometimes hunts waterfowl, or her husband will bring home a larger game animal such as deer. “It’s never like shooting at something just to be doing it,” explains Dr. Sundstrom. “We eat it. We use everything. That’s the respect you have to show for taking the life of an animal. We enjoy creating meals entirely out of what we’ve harvested.”
Growing up in southern California, she credits her parents for her love of nature through a childhood spent camping, hiking, and exploring. However, she said they also instilled in her several more intangible qualities that would end up shaping her adult life.
“My father expected me to be a good student…and so I was. He was so supportive, the kind of dad who would work through your homework with you if you got stuck,” Dr. Sundstrom recalls. “I remember him checking my math, telling me my answers were wrong but not telling me what was wrong with them. He’d just say I needed to go back and work some more.”
This combination of loving support, self-sufficiency, and an expectation to push yourself led to her skipping a grade in elementary school and fostered a lifelong love of reading and academics.
In fact, as the daughter of two school teachers, it may be no surprise that Dr. Sundstrom’s career path eventually landed her in higher education.
“Teaching is probably the most satisfying thing that I’ve done in my life,” says Dr. Sundstrom. “Part of what I enjoy doing is helping people realize their dreams through this incredible process.”
However, in 1977 as an undergrad biology student at UCLA, she initially wanted to be a physician. It didn’t take too long before Dr. Sundstrom discovered her true passion.
“I realized what I really enjoyed was being in leadership positions, having an opportunity to influence things from a decision-making standpoint. This is when my early love of learning translated into putting that thinking into action.”
From there, Dr. Sundstrom began making the transition from health care to management and problem-solving, more specifically, helping businesses improve efficiency, manage change, grow, and develop.
“My interest has always been in seeing how people work and helping people be more effective,” says Dr. Sundstrom. “If you think about changing a health habit, first you have to decide you’re going to do it. Then, you actually have to go out and do it. Organizational change is much the same way, except you’re working with a lot of players.”
For more than 20 years, Dr. Sundstrom worked as a consultant and brought that wealth of hands-on expertise with her into her role as an educator.
“Helping an organization both plan for and strategize a new direction, new vision, or new way of operating and then implementing the systemic changes that need to take place,” says Dr. Sundstrom, “Those are some of the most satisfying sorts of projects to me.”
Her work did not go unrecognized. Twice she’s won the Denver Post’s “Outstanding Women in Business Award” as well as the “2006 Women in Business Champion of the Year,” in addition to numerous other awards.
In 2009, when she heard that the University of the Rockies (later to merge with Ashford University) needed instructors with her type of business acumen and leadership experience, she decided to go for it. Today, as Lead Faculty, she oversees both program and course development and works closely with doctoral candidates throughout their dissertation research preparation.
Getting to know Dr. Peggy Sundstrom
We recently spoke with her to learn more about her work with doctoral students and how she’s turned decades of business sense into a successful role as an educator and mentor at the Forbes School of Business and Technology.
Ashford: Can you explain more about the Ph.D. in Organizational Development and Leadership program?
Dr. Sundstrom: As a pretty broad degree, the intent of it is to help people apply theories and models of organizational behavior in a leadership setting. We don’t study subjects like finance or bookkeeping. We study how people work, how they interact, how you manage change, grow organizations, and value people. When I think about what I bring to this as a practitioner, my interest has always been in questioning how things work. Not mechanically, but as in people, how people within an organization work together. When you can get lots of different groups working effectively, you have an effective organization. That’s the set of competencies that we address in the Ph.D. program, or ODL for short.
Dr. Peggy Sundstrom, left, accepting an award from the Colorado Small Business Administrator Patricia Barela-Rivera.
Ashford: How has your experience in the business world helped you be a more successful educator?
Dr. Sundstrom: My program now is the intellectual side of what I do on the practical side of my consulting. What I would do for an organization in helping people grow within is the same type of work that I do with my students now. My favorite part of my job is working with students one-on-one during the in-residency sessions.
Coaching my dissertation and doctoral research students is wonderfully rewarding. Each student starts at a different place and has different capabilities, strengths, fears, and motivations. Each student becomes a project, if you will, where I look at each individually and think about how I can best help that particular student. Some need just a little advice, and you get out of their way. Other students need a bit of tough love. Some of them need you to hold their hand for a little while to guide them when they feel stuck. Part of what I enjoy doing is helping people realize this incredible achievement of earning a doctoral degree through that dissertation process. Helping them accomplish their dreams is immensely satisfying.
Dr. Peggy Sundstrom teaches a group of third-graders how a wetland works to stop erosion.
Ashford: What differences do you see at the doctoral level than you would see working with students in master or undergrad classes?
Dr. Sundstrom: When we’re working with dissertation students, it’s a time where a student goes from a recipient of knowledge to becoming the creator of it. When you’re taking classes, we give you all sorts of information and want you to learn from it and absorb it. But when you’re working on your dissertation, you’re creating knowledge. You’re starting from the standpoint of “based on what we already know about a topic” and questioning how you can build on that. I think back to when I was young and didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but people were willing to give me a chance. Many times, that’s what our students need, to be pushed in the right direction. Then they take off and discover they can do it on their own.
Dr. Peggy Sundstrom proudly poses with a halibut she caught.
Ashford: What is one of the most important take-aways you hope all students will learn during their educational journey?
Dr. Sundstrom: As educators, we are responsible for making our emerging leaders become citizens of the world. No longer can we perpetuate the insularity that has marked so much of the U.S. experience. We must embrace and work collaboratively with people across this country and around the world. It is our destiny to become citizen leaders of the world, no longer superior in our own right, but partners in advancing humanity’s betterment and global prosperity through ethical leadership and humane investments in people, societies, and global commerce.