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Serving the Underserved – Sarah DePugh’s Dragon Story

In Honor of Women’s History Month

By Matthew Early

Between the exuberant personality and fiery sense of enthusiasm, Sarah DePugh, Tiffin University’s Executive Director of Undergraduate Admission has established herself as a prominent and integral figure on campus. So much so, that it’s tough to picture her as anything other than the department’s fearless and charismatic leader. What many might not know is that Sarah actually began her time at Tiffin as a student, admittedly just as nervous as any other incoming first-year. It was a real treat to sit down with this impressive Dragon and learn about how the challenges she faced then prepared her for a lifelong career of helping others in the now.

sarah johnson

“I’m a worker,” Sarah said plainly. “Always have been, always will be. I had my first job at 14 – a local movie theater. I was one of seven kids growing up, so money was tight. My parents drove me to and from jobs at first because I was too young to drive myself.” According to Sarah, growing up in the Appalachian countryside presents a number of challenges for those seeking to pursue a college degree, she being no exception.

“It’s a lower-income area, so not only is the traditional college experience almost out of the question for so many families, but due to a lack of K-12 educational resources, those who do get it figured out often aren’t prepared for the academic side of things, either,” she said.

In light of this, when it was time for Sarah to think about her own next steps after graduating high school, she and her family were understandably concerned about their ability to pay for a four-year degree.

“My parents were always hard workers, which is where I get it from, but when you have seven mouths to feed, that would be a strain on anybody. Growing up in a family that sometimes struggled, the college discussion was obviously a serious one, but I was determined to make it work, somehow.”

“Make it work” is exactly what she did, too. In addition to being a strong student, academically, Sarah was also a gifted musician, the clarinet being her instrument of choice.

“I remember the day I got the call so clearly,” Sarah recalled. “I was working at a tanning salon when TU’s music program rang to tell me they were so impressed with my audition, they were awarding me their top scholarship. I couldn’t believe it.”

This new development, coupled with a hefty academic scholarship meant that Sarah’s dream had suddenly become an attainable reality.

“Sure, I knew we weren’t wealthy or even well off at the time,” she said. “Now I wear it as a badge of honor. Like, yeah, I came from a disadvantaged area, but look at all I accomplished in spite of it. The folks at TU cared enough to help me learn about and apply for grants, scholarships and aid programs, so now it’s my turn to pay it forward and do the same for others, and I’m especially equipped to do so.”

 “I had to move into my dorm a week before the other freshman because of band,” Sarah remembered. “Little did I know that many upperclassmen were already moved in for the same reason, and they took me under their wings – showed me around campus, introduced me to people, gave an insider’s perspective into life at TU and where to go for help. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this ended up being a huge help later on when it came to applying for jobs on campus. I already knew whom to contact, and here I am nearly a decade later, still working with the Office of Admissions. It all started with a part-time, on-campus job as a tour guide and took off from there.”

According to Sarah, working in admissions was never the original plan. As many of her family members were involved in law enforcement at the time, she enrolled with the intention of studying forensic psychology, ultimately wanting to join the FBI. While this was the degree Sarah ended up graduating with, she realized partway through the program that a career change was necessary.

Sarah had always been a natural when it came to interacting with prospective students and their families. They found her personable, lively and informative, all essential qualities in a tour guide.

“My natural sense of determination really kicked in with that first job. Like I said, I’ve always been a worker. I saw it as a competition I was having with myself. I wanted to see how many folks I could convince to enroll or even just consider TU. For those that did, I was so proud to have played some small part in their decision-making.”

Through that very drive to succeed and create a stable life for herself, Sarah moved through the ranks, continuing her work with the same office as a graduate student at TU. Eventually, she became an admissions counselor before being promoted to Assistant Director, to Director and then finally, she was named the Executive Director in 2020. Now, Sarah uses her firsthand knowledge of the financial obstacles many prospective students face to inform how she goes about conducting the daily operations of the department. 

“I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. The uncertainty, not knowing where to start with applying for financial aid or being able to name all the resources available to the disadvantaged. Thankfully, I had a wonderful support system to help me get it figured out, and I remain grateful to this day. TU has always been an institution that serves the underserved, and it is a privilege to continue this work as someone who once directly benefited from their many services.”