Karen Erwin, SVSU administrative assistant to the dean of students, has an office located in the Student Affairs suite. The team in this suite — Erwin included — carry many responsibilities, largely involving helping the many students who find their way to the office.
Erwin, though, is quite modest when talking about herself, and often directs the attention on others. But the Saginaw native is more outspoken when the conversation turns toward her job, her workplace environment, and the points of pride that lead her to love both.
“We’re here to help students succeed,” she said. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why I’m here.”
Erwin’s road “here” began as a member of SVSU’s clerical pool in 2000. Eventually, she was hired part-time to help manage the budgets of Student Affairs, Residential Life and two registered student organizations. By 2008, she became a full-time staff member, inhabiting the role she maintains to this day.
With Erwin’s desk located at the center of the Student Affairs office, she interacts with a lot of students. She greets everyone who enters the office with a friendly smile and asks how she can help. Frequently, she guides students and visitors to classrooms or offices around campus.
Among her favorite days are those in which the Cardinal food pantry lifts the spirits of students in need. Erwin is a member of the committee that created the program, which collects and distributes non-perishable food for SVSU students in need of sustenance.
“We have to do our little part to help students who need help in that way,” she said. “When students are content physically, they’re able to succeed academically. That’s important.”
“Karen is the best-est,” Michele Gunkelman said, peaking her head into the office where the interview for this profile was underway. “You can quote me, and maybe correct my grammar.”
When Gunkelman learned her colleague was earning attention as the recipient of Staff Member of the Month, Gunkelman decided some playfully-interjectory praise was in order.
She wasn’t alone in making sure the office’s inhabitants’ high praise for Erwin was known. Erwin’s care for students was reciprocated too.
“You’re going to be famous,” one of the office’s student-workers said — in an excited tone — to Erwin as the author of this profile exited the suite. “Yes!,” another student exclaimed in response to the suggestion.
Erwin smiled at the students’ giddiness on her behalf.
“It’s a great day to be a Cardinal” is emblazoned on a sign above the suite’s front door, and it’s a mantra beloved by Erwin.
When it comes to multi-tasking between interests, Norm Wika has a hard time pairing any task with music. Even listening to a music station during drives to work can be a challenge for the SVSU assistant professor of music. Instead, he opts for talk radio.
“If I’m listening to music, I want to be fully engaged in it,” he said. “I enjoy the music more when I can be fully committed to it.”
Wika has not been a stranger to commitment lately. In the fall, he committed to working at SVSU, where he also began leading the university’s bands … and creating one that didn’t exist previously.
After working at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma for nine years, Wika said he and his wife wanted a change of scenery. An opening at SVSU provided more than that.
“The thing that really attracted me here was that the faculty all seemed to be on the same page in terms of the direction of the department, and those goals align with my career goals and personal goals in terms of music and music education,” Wika said.
“I felt I had the experience and knowledge that could contribute to the department goals.”
Along with serving as the band director, Wika also created a wind ensemble for student musicians. His expectations: to host one wind ensemble performance per semester.
“I selected a program of music that was fairly standard,” he said. “By the time we got three rehearsals into it, I could see the students were performing at a very high level, so we added a second program for that first semester. That was fun; to be part of the inaugural wind ensemble.”
Wika doesn’t consider leading musical programs or teaching the subject part of his “job,” though.
“I don’t know that music is so much a career as it is a lifestyle for me,” he said. “I do music all day.”
When he isn’t teaching or directing SVSU student musicians, he is fine-tuning his own musical chops. Since moving to the Great Lakes Bay Region, he has performed with the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra as a trombonist. He has played the instrument since he first dove into the lifestyle by joining the school band as a fourth grader in Kansas City.
There were a few moments in those early years where Wika contemplated quitting. But by high school, he was rarely distracted by other interests during a musical journey that led him to SVSU.
Before volunteers signed up to help during the FIRST Robotics statewide competition at SVSU, Carolyn Wierda had a decision to make: How many T-shirts to order for those anticipated helpers.
Wierda requested an order of 400, thinking there was a good chance she would have a surplus of 100 after the event.
Instead, she came up 25 shirts shy.
“We were hoping for 300 volunteers,” said Wierda, the STEM@SVSU executive director as well as volunteer coordinator for the FIRST Robotics event. “So, to get 425 people offering to help, that was a remarkable statement made by our students, staff and faculty.”
What added to the remarkable nature of FIRST Robotics was the short amount of time Wierda was afforded to organize a large-scale volunteer effort for an event that was expected to — and did — bring 7,000 visitors from across the state to the Ryder Center.
“I’m not sure we’ve ever had a volunteer effort of that magnitude,” she said. “It was a challenge, and people stepped up.”
The outpouring of support was a testament to one of SVSU’s defining characteristics: its hospitality.
“The people who visited were able to see how beautiful our campus is, how modern our facilities are, and how welcoming we are,” Wierda said. “This event brought together people to an event that really emphasized what we have to offer.”
Outside of those personable offerings, FIRST Robotics also helped highlight another SVSU strength Wierda understands well: its STEM programs. High school students and parents were exposed to the university’s faculty and students, along with the many STEM-based programs at SVSU.
Wierda has served as executive director of STEM@SVSU since January 2015. Since then, she has worked to build upon — and market — the STEM programs already underway at the university. Those initiatives extend beyond courses and classrooms for undergraduates, and include initiatives geared toward improving K-12 student interest in the sciences.
Wierda was quick to share credit for STEM@SVSU’s development with campus leaders, faculty, staff, students and regional partners.
“There are so many people here and in our community who are doing tremendous things for STEM,” she said.
“With the relationships SVSU has with local businesses and the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance, there are many more opportunities that could come our way. I’m just one person. There are a lot of people who are helping to make this happen.”
Wierda also said she serves on Gov. Rick Snyder’s STEM Advisory Council.
“That has brought a number of opportunities for our university,” she said. “We’re really doing everything we can to improve STEM education in the state of Michigan.”
Sue Brasseur didn’t have the luxury of Tinkerbell pixie dust when helping organize the FIRST Robotics statewide competition in April, but that didn’t stop The Conference Center at SVSU’s director from helping a show earn magical reviews.
At least one of the 7,000-plus visitors during the four-day Robotics stay compared SVSU’s hospitality to a “Disney-like” experience. Plenty more compliments poured in to the campus following the contest, but the Disney analogy was the most touching and flattering compliment for Brasseur, who has strived for such excellence since attending a Disney workshop on hospitality.
“I wanted to make sure FIRST Robotics was the best experience for these first-time guests, and that the university would shine,” she said.
“To bring all these people onto campus and have it fail: That wasn’t something I was going to settle for. To have a ‘Disney-like’ experience means you are going above and beyond the expectations of someone. They were expecting A, you gave them A, and then you also gave them B, C and D and so on.”
The accomplishment was especially satisfying considering the degree of difficulty involved. Hosting an event the size of FIRST Robotics ideally involves two years of preparation time and planning, she said. SVSU had 17 weeks to gear up for the gathering after organizers committed to the venue.
The difficulty of that quick turnaround was compounded by the fact that FIRST Robotics represented what Brasseur considered the most complex event planning operation in university history
“Bigger than the Lions,” said Brasseur, referring to the Detroit NFL franchise that hosted its training camps at SVSU’s campus in the late 1990s.
She helped coordinate — along with other with FIRST Robotics’ organizers — the 160 high school teams that competed, and high-profile guests such as Gov. Rick Snyder and U.S. Senator Gary Peters. On top of that, the event happened during a busy academic semester.
Tackling all those elements involved many people working massive amounts of hours during the days and weeks leading up to the event. During the four days of set-up and four days of the event, Brasseur logged 125 hours of work. There are 192 hours in an 8-day span.
“It was a lot of work, but you just do what you’ve got to do,” she said.
Brasseur said the effort involved coordination between several branches of the university.
“Things like this can’t happen without a team environment,” she said. “My team at The Conference Center at SVSU is exceptional. All the departments and offices that helped make this happen were exceptional.”
And they might need to pull it off again, albeit next time with much more advance notice. Brasseur said the university is in discussions with FIRST Robotics for a return in 2018.
John Baesler was a boy in Bensheim, West Germany in the 1980s when his family — watching a crime drama on TV — heard a knock at the front door one evening. On the other side were two members of his family he met for the first time that night: His father’s niece and her daughter, who had arrived there after a daring escape from then-Communist-occupied East Germany.
“That was an amazing experience,” said Baesler, now an associate professor of history at Saginaw Valley State University. “They had escaped through Hungary and showed up at our door.”
Not long after that, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Cold War’s grip slipped loose. The two German nations reconciled. Families reunited without fear. The anxiety of those divided days went the way of history.
It’s that distancing history that Baesler chases today. With the help of his students, he is leading a research effort aimed at capturing the experience of living in West Germany during a Cold War that spanned four decades, including the 28-year existence of the Berlin Wall. For now, the project involves interviewing United States military veterans stationed near communities such as his hometown in Bensheim, just south of Frankfurt with a population of 40,000, although he may expand the work’s scope depending on his findings.
“I want to answer the question, ‘How did that everyday interaction with each other influence Germans and Americans, and how did that influence the Americans when they came back to America?,’” he said.
“There was an everyday diplomacy between Germans citizens and American soldiers. Especially in small German cities, that represented a major change in daily life.”
Baesler was witness to much of that cultural interplay. He remembers the weddings between American soldiers and German daughters. He listened to the U.S. Armed Forces’ radio stations. He saw their military vehicles traveling the streets. He enjoyed their food.
“Once a year, the Americans in our town had an open-door event, where they invited us in,” Baesler said. “They played really good music, and I remember eating marshmallows for the first time there. Germans didn’t have marshmallows.”
More than 20 million U.S. military veterans have served inside Germany's borders.
Already, Baesler and his students have heard stories from 14 veterans — recording their accounts on video, audio and paper — and he continues to search for more witnesses of that history.
“There are so many stories to tell, and I’m interested to hear them,” he said. “This is a labor of love for me.”
For being too much of a distraction in seventh grade, Sylvia Fromherz was asked to spend the rest of class sitting outside in her Catholic school’s atrium. It was a beautiful spring day in Orego. The teacher’s decision hardly felt like a punishment.
It wasn’t the serenity of the setting that stands out about the experience to Fromherz now, years later. Instead, that day became a watershed moment in her life when Fromherz discovered the orb weaver spider sharing space with her in that atrium.
“I watched it as it built such an intricate, geometrically-precise web,” she recalled. “It was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen.”
That moment of biological beauty launched Fromherz on an academic path that led to her position today at SVSU.
“It’s been an unlikely journey,” the assistant professor of biology said.
Fromherz grew up one of 11 children on a dairy farm straddling the Oregon coast. Aside from the Catholic community, there was little contact with the outside world. Rare TV allowances afforded her exposure to nature-themed shows with hosts such as Jacques Cousteau. Some of her earliest reading material were decades-outdated science books purchased for pennies from local auctions.
Her love for science inspired a high school teacher to educate Fromherz on what he had learned while earning a college degree in forestry and oceanography. Later, a field trip to Oregon State University — the only college Fromherz had gazed up to that point in her life — convinced her to pursue her passion in a postsecondary setting.
She went on to earn a bachelor’s in marine biology at that same institution and, later, moved to the east coast to earn a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at Brandeis University. In between, she spent two years at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
She has remained involved in higher education ever since, transitioning from student to a research-driven educator intent on empowering students who share her passion for STEM.
When Fromherz joined SVSU in fall 2015, she continued a student-supported research project she began years earlier at another institution. She and her undergraduate students are studying sensorimotor development in the embryonic chick.
Her passion to promote STEM extends beyond specific research. In her classrooms, she uses active learning strategies and online enhancements such as recorded online lectures to help her students better connect with the science she began to love as early as childhood. The practice allows students to watch a recording of Fromherz teach biology on their computer screens from a cozy spot outdoors, near where the spiders sometimes weave their webs.
There’s a photo on the wall of Tammy Elliott’s third floor Wickes office. In the foreground, there are trees and bushes, capped with white, untouched snow. Peeking out from a gap in the landscape is the red water tower that once stood tall on campus before it was removed in 2000.
“When I used to work at the Graphics Center, I would tell people they could find me by going to the building near the tower,” said Elliott, now SVSU’s special assistant to the provost. “It stood out.”
Much the same way as the tower once stood out for others, SVSU stood out from other higher education institutions for Elliott. As one of 136 seniors at Beaverton High School in 1989, nearly all of her college-bound classmates chose larger universities. Elliott wanted to take a route that seemed more adventurous; something that might allow her stand out from the rest.
“I wanted to try something different than what everyone else I knew was trying,” she said. “It worked out for me. I haven’t left since.”
Despite her 28-years-and-counting stay with the university, she hasn’t lost her appetite for challenging herself with new endeavors.
Elliott’s undergraduate years were spent studying graphic design. By the time she graduated in May 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in the subject, she already had been hired for more than a year as a full-time employee in the campus Graphics Center.
Soon, though, she felt the itch for a new challenge. The same year she graduated, she was hired as the administrative secretary at the office now known as University Communications. She retained that same title when she moved on to a new challenge at the College of Education in 2003 and then another new challenge at Academic Affairs in 2011. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in communications.
At Academic Affairs, Elliott worked in the same suite with Kristen Gregory, who retired as special assistant to the provost in 2015. The opening presented another challenge for Elliott. She applied and was hired for the position that largely oversees faculty workloads and classroom scheduling.
Elliott’s roles over the years have placed her in nearly every corner of campus — near landmarks that no longer exist, and in both buildings and offices long since re-named. She keeps reminders of her travels on campus hanging on her wall, but never loses a sense of adventure for the road ahead.
"I'm always looking for a new challenge here,” she said.
Few people are as responsible for how well your workday goes as Jason Rasmussen.
That’s because the SVSU management specialist has control over the temperatures of every room on campus, save for a few student housing suites.
The magnitude of this power isn’t lost upon the 52-year-old. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously — and with pride.
“I can tell you that the temperature in your room right now is 72 degrees,” Rasmussen, from his office in South Campus Complex A, tells this profile’s author, whose office is in Wickes Hall.
“There are some studies that say that’s the most comfortable temperature. I want people to be comfortable.”
Establishing that comfort begins when Rasmussen boots up a pair of computers that host the software that sets temperature levels for most of the campus’ individual rooms and commons areas. When the programs load, Rasmussen switches between screens showing maps of various building floorplans and offices, overlaid by a rainbow of colors designating equipment functions and heat.
With a few taps of his finger, Rasmussen turns chilled rooms hot, and dry suites humid. He performs this task in real-time or weeks in advance using a scheduling system.
There’s a sense of strategy to the work. Rasmussen determines the timing for environmental changes within spaces with people’s work schedules in mind. Classrooms are cooled to reasonable levels when students go home for the night. Gymnasiums are warmed up before a crowd is expected to arrive for a sporting event in the afternoon.
The most important determinant of Rasmussen’s work, though, are the people inhabiting the environments he controls.
“All they have to do is let me know if the room is too cold or too hot,” he says.
Not everyone is aware of the systems in place to request environmental changes in individual spaces. The deed is as easy as clicking a “Request Maintenance” tab on the university’s website. Rasmussen doesn’t mind the extra workload, he says. Minding his mantra — “I want people to be comfortable” — is what matters to him.
There are other elements of his job that keep the Grayling native busy and send him outside of his corner of campus. Equipment in need of repair is one of those duties. Recently, he absorbed foreman responsibilities from a co-worker who retired.
The work keeps him happy. He’s served at SVSU for 18 years and hopes to work there at least another decade.
“There’s not too many places where you come and enjoy work,” he says. “This is one of them.”
Next academic year, the youngest of his two daughters plans to attend the university. He’s not certain yet if she will live on campus or remain at home. Either way, Rasmussen adds, he will be the one who controls the temperature in her room.
Lisa Micsak is from a 1-traffic light town, but when it comes to her career, she’s discovered an open road without a stop sign in sight.
The Linwood native now serves as the administrative services coordinator for The Conference Center at SVSU, where she began working while still an undergraduate student in 2010.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in management in December 2013, then returned as a full-time employee in June 2014 to The Conference Center at SVSU.
While a university campus provides a busier setting than her small town beginnings did, Micsak said it was the “close-knit family atmosphere” at her office that inspired her to apply for a job there after graduation.
“The best memories I have here all involve the people,” she said. “It is inspiring how well everyone looks out for each other and takes pride in the overall community-oriented culture of the university, making it a very harmonious atmosphere.”
That level of comfort spills over into their interactions with clients. The Conference Center at SVSU works both with clientele on campus as well as outside organizations and guests interested in utilizing the campus’ facilities for various events.
One of Micsak’s favorite work experiences involved coordinating the wedding of a couple whose groom was an SVSU graduate. Micsak, though, largely worked with the bride-to-be, who lived in another state at the time.
“Our correspondence was all by email or phone leading up to the wedding,” Micsak said.
“She had to really trust my recommendations and planning abilities; that everything would look the way she wanted it to look when she got here. When we finally met on the day before the wedding, it was amazing to see the excitement and joy on her face when she saw the final result, providing her with a beautiful memory for their special day.
Micsak’s professional ambitions include furthering her career in Higher Education. She is enrolled at SVSU in classes for a master’s degree in public administration, and expects to graduate in May 2018.
“I am very passionate about furthering my career in higher education,” she said. “Long-term, I would like to work with students and look forward to being a mentor to them.
“Most of my life, friends have come to me for guidance or advice,” she said. “A lot of people need someone to listen to them and provide a caring outside perspective to help them with critical decisions they are encountering in their life.”
Micsak said her accomplishments don’t belong exclusively to her. She often is cheered on by her family, and her parents have played an important key role in her success.
“I was the first college graduate in my immediate family, so being able to attend my graduation, for them, was like attending their own graduation,” she said. “They’ve been my motivators and my role-models, without them I would not be where I am today, and for them I truly grateful.”
If you’re trying to conceal the nature of your conversation by speaking in a non-English language in front of Kate Scott, your secret might not be so safe.
The director of the English Language Program (ELP) is charged with helping international students learn English, but the extent of her handle on other languages remains a source of mystery to those on campus — and that’s the way she likes it.
“There was this one student talking to another who hadn’t bought his textbook yet,” Scott recalled. “They were going back in forth (in Arabic) about this until, finally, I told him, ‘You just need to go to the bookstore.’ They both looked at me a little surprised. ‘You know what we were saying?’”
Mostly she knew what they were saying, at least.
“I just left it at that,” she said with a smile.
Scott’s understanding of that particular language began in the Sudan, where she served as a third grade teacher shortly after graduating from SVSU as an elementary education major in 2007.
Her 3-year stint in the northeastern African nation — where they speak Arabic — helped inspire Scott to continue working in international education when she returned to the United States in 2010. That inspiration led her back to SVSU, where she began as a teacher in the ELP that same year, largely working with students from Saudi Arabia.
Scott was hired as the program’s assistant director in 2011 and became director in early 2014.
“I love my staff,” the Kalamazoo native said of the 19 people she oversees. “They’re one of the reasons why I like my job so much. They are considerate, competent and genuinely like each other.”
The team sometimes turns meetings into potlucks; other times, the group enjoys organizing outings with the program’s students. In addition to the 22 hours of intensive language instruction students receive each week, “We also want to make sure the students have an authentic experience in our community,” Scott said. For instance, her staff and students earlier this month visited Johnson’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Saginaw.
It’s not all fun and games, however. The ELP recently earned some serious stripes. In August, the program received SVSU’s first 4-year accreditation designation from The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation.
Scott is proud of the accomplishment, and the program in general, which is celebrating its 20th year on campus.
“It’s one of the best places you could work,” she said of the program.
She might be able to inform people of that fact in more languages than one — she just won’t tell you how many.