Ambassador to the World Dr. Bruce Pelkey
Dr. Bruce Pelkey spent his entire career in public education, positively impacting the lives of thousands of students. Anyone who has met him can attest to his gentle and generous nature, and his penchant for puns. I met Dr. Pelkey during his 13-year stretch as College of the Canyons’ Director of the International Students Program. I was an international student from Canada and found a home and community in the COC program that he helmed.
I recently visited Dr. Pelkey to discuss his long-spanning career in education and his impact on Santa Clarita. Today, he lives in Ventura County with his wife, Monika, who is also a retired teacher. He and Monika met while attending Uppsala University in Sweden, her home country.
The Pelkey home feels more like a museum than the house of school teachers. Rugs from Turkey and Uzbekistan line the floors. Art from Japan, Sweden, Hungary, and countless other countries adorn the walls. The experience of walking through their hallways is almost overwhelming with stimuli. Every inch is covered in mementos from their travels, with each piece containing its own personal and historical significance.
Despite his international aura, Dr. Pelkey is a quintessential Southern Californian: born in Glendale, raised in Mission Hills, educated at CSUN, and a teaching career that started at Canyon High School. He progressed to become a student counselor at COC, and then Director of the Disabled Students Program and Services (DSPS) at the college.
In 1997, during his time at DSP, Dr. Pelkey approached COC’s Chancellor, Dr. Dianne G. Van Hook, with a pitch as part of his doctoral dissertation. He proposed his vision of an International Students Program (ISP) where COC would recruit students from all over the globe to come study in Santa Clarita. The program would provide them with resources on getting a student visa, thriving in American culture, and the counseling they needed to succeed at the college. “It was a brand new concept and Dianne was incredibly supportive of new ventures,” says Dr. Pelkey, remembering the Chancellor’s enthusiastic encouragement to try the program out. “We couldn’t have pulled it off without her support.”
Over the years, Dr. Pelkey’s vision came to fruition. ISP blossomed into a diverse family of thousands of members. He recruited students to come study at College of the Canyons from Albania, Brazil, Iceland, Japan, Khazakstan, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, and many, many more. When students would arrive at the college, they were met with a gracious team of advisors and counselors eager to give them a warm welcome and the tools to succeed.
“I experienced the unique struggles of being an international student firsthand,” recalls Pelkey. He attended graduate school in Sweden and remembers the challenges that came with the language and cultural barriers. “When you go overseas, you’re on your own. Our goal with ISP was to give students the feeling of joining a family.”
Navigating different cultural norms comes easy to someone like Dr. Pelkey. While he appears large and commanding at over six and a half feet tall, he is a chameleon of kindness. He is remarkably able to adapt to different social situations and make everyone in the room feel at ease. “You have to be a happy warrior and see the humor in things,” he says about getting along with a variety of international school executives, students, and their families.
When asked about his favorite parts of the world to visit, Dr. Pelkey extolls the delights of African and Asian countries. “They’re wonderful places to see and there’s simply so much to do, from the spice markets to the natural wonders,” he explains.
He is now retired and left College of the Canyons with a lasting legacy of kindness to strangers and always putting students first. His vision left a mark on both COC and the greater Santa Clarita Valley, with over 2400 students joining the unique community he designed.
Dr. Pelkey visited a total of 95 countries in this role as COC’s ambassador to the world. Now that they’ve settled down, he and Monika look forward to visiting another five countries (or more!) to round out their travel list to at least 100 nations. They’re spending this and next summer at their vacation home in Sweden with their two daughters and their families. And, naturally, both daughters followed in their parents’ footsteps: they’re teachers.
Photos by Kyle Murphey