Matthew Walla impressed national judges, but only because others looked past his timidity three years earlier.
The Saginaw Valley State University senior recently was named one of six students nationally to receive the Outstanding Student of 2014 award from BACCHUS Initiatives of NASPA, a collegiate peer education organization with members from more than 340 colleges and universities nationally.
“I get a smile every time I think about winning that,” said the biology major from Washington, Mich. “That's not what I do the work for, but it's nice to be recognized for it.”
But he nearly wasn't recognized for it. Not just because of the stiff competition nationally. Three years ago, Walla almost missed the cut when he applied for a spot on SVSU's Peer Health Education team, the organization that provided Walla the opportunity to win the award.
Sara Martinez, director of SVSU's Student Wellness Programs, has served as Walla's supervisor since he joined her Peer Health Education team in 2011. She remembers his shaky start well.
“He was the most nervous candidate we have ever had, and I have seen hundreds of interviews,” Martinez said. “We even brought him in to do a second interview because he seemed endearing, but we weren't quite sure why he wanted to be a volunteer in Peer Health Education.”
Martinez said the second impression convinced her and her board to bring him aboard. From that point, Walla's confidence and leadership skills grew rapidly and remarkably.
In his first year, he was instrumental in founding Greeks Advocating the Mature Management of Alcohol, which provides leadership opportunities for students in fraternities and sororities to educate peers about alcohol.
By year two, he joined the campus-wide advisory group overseeing peer health education for alcohol. There, he organized several campus events raising awareness on the subject.
This year, his Peer Health Education focus topic is environmental sustainability, a new initiative within Martinez's programs.
“Matt has taken on this charge and hit the ground running by creating a new group called the Eco Cardinals,” said Martinez, who nominated Walla for the BACCHUS Initiatives award. “This group already has 10 members and put on three programs during the fall semester.”
Walla said he may pursue the environmental sustainability focus as a career after SVSU, where he plans to graduate in May.
“Up until last semester, I was thinking I would attend medical school,” the Romeo High School graduate said. “I took the summer to rethink everything and I came back with a fresh mind. Environmental sustainability has really piqued my interests, and I can apply my biology degree to the environmental world.”
Walla said he plans to eventually pursue a postgraduate degree. That pursuit will most likely come after another summer at the Boy Scouts of America's Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, where he has spent three years teaching both amateur adventurers and scouts how to navigate the Rocky Mountains there.
The job involves one of Walla's strengths: working with people. It's an asset Martinez hopes he utilizes in whatever career he pursues.
“Matt is a peer educator to his core,” she said. “I'm proud that Matt has come this far and I know that this is only the beginning for what will be an amazing journey of helping people, educating people, and trying to leave the world a better place.”