High school: Flint Southwestern Academy
Future: The Dow Chemical Company, accounting department
As a future accounting asset to The Dow Chemical Company, Kevin Finley crossed the graduation stage in May 2017 with excitement and a firm sense of purpose after five years at Saginaw Valley State University. The Flint native has replaced childhood scars with an ever-present smile, having learned many valuable lessons inside and outside the classroom.
"In leadership and in life, it's not just about the grades," Finley said.
Finely has the grades – he made the Deans' list all 10 semesters, studying professional accountancy – but it was getting in touch with his values and those of his university, and putting those values into action that taught him as much or more.
"SVSU has taught me that there's more to life than just being smart. Do you care about the community? Are you humble? Do you want to see others around you succeed with you? In life, you can't do anything by yourself and SVSU has that community focus that I really appreciate."
With aspirations to start his own mentorship program one day, Finley started planning out his future while in high school at Flint Southwestern Academy where he took his first accounting class. There, he discovered not only his proficiency in the field, but his love for it as well.
"It just made sense to me," he said.
After discovering this passion, Finley took a tour of SVSU during his senior year of high school. Though he had been considering some other universities at the time, the welcoming campus of SVSU and the friendly people who inhabited it convinced him to enroll.
"I felt like I could really make an impact at SVSU and it was big enough to meet a lot of people but it was small enough to still make an impact," he said.
Finley certainly stood out. As a member of the Roberts Fellowship Program – a student leadership development initiative at SVSU – he built upon his leadership and academic achievement through service projects and study. Finley and nine of his classmates traveled to Asia in May as the culmination of the program.
"One of the goals of the program is to become well-rounded in global citizenship while making us aware of different social issues in different areas of the world," he said.
Recognized by his fellow students, Finley beamed with pride after being elected to Homecoming Court in the fall of 2015.
"It was just an honor to make court – just to have that experience was kind of cool," he said. "I thought, 'Wow. I affected people enough on this campus to even make court.'"
Students knew Finley because he signed up for nearly every high-profile position a student can have. He worked as a resident assistant, a campus tour guide, and an orientation leader, helping new students acclimate to SVSU.
Through his involvement with Delta Sigma Pi, a business fraternity, Finley built his résumé further. He worked his way up, eventually serving as the vice president of finance for a year and a half before serving as the fraternity's president for a year. Finley was awarded the Huron Regional Collegian of the Year in 2016 for Delta Sigma Pi; the award is presented to a member of the fraternity who represents the distinguished values and ideals of the organization through achievement, participation and character.
Finley's drive and determination saw him serve as an accounting tutor in SVSU's tutoring center as well as a research assistant in the Office of Institutional Research. He also worked as an intern with The Dow Chemical Company, where he made connections and secured a full-time job after graduation.
A first-generation college student, Finley remembers a time when the future didn't always look so bright.
"Where I came from, no one really expected me to be a leader," he said. "No one expected me to make Homecoming Court. No one expected me to do all the stuff I'm doing. SVSU allows you to grow your confidence here."
Personal perseverance shaped Finley's confidence.
"I was beaten up really badly in high school," he said. "I was really, really frustrated but then I realized, it's not about who does what to you. It's about your response. I can say, 'I don't want to see that happen to someone else so let me show people that there's more to life than negativity.' I don't want to let stuff like that hinder me. I just want to stay positive."
Finley spreads that positivity through his connections at SVSU, in the community and in his hometown.
"My ultimate goal is to become a CFO – a chief financial officer – of a company, and, although I have a passion for accounting, I also have a passion for mentorship," he said. "Coming from Flint, Michigan, I've always told myself that I wanted to give back by starting a mentorship program or possibly doing a scholarship for people growing up in the Flint area."
Finley learned from multiple mentors to him during his time at SVSU.
"I was really lucky to have great mentors in my life," he said. Among those mentors were Ian Philbrick, a former resident director with SVSU Residential Life.
"He taught me about leadership and he held me accountable. Stuff like that is intangible. You can't put a value on it," Finley said.
Another mentor was Nick Wagner, SVSU's director of institutional research. "He wants to see you succeed. He gives his all to the community and he would always make time for students," Finley said.
Wagner has worked closely with Finley over the course of his time at SVSU and spoke highly of him as both a student and a young professional.
"Kevin has been one of the most unique and profound students I have ever had the chance to interact with at SVSU," Wagner said. "He displays a constant desire to learn and become better all while being selfless and humble. He is a student the university should be extremely proud of and has set the standard for what it means to be a student leader."
With his post-graduation plans locked down, Finley is excited to see where his future will lead. Hard work and dedication certainly play a large role in Finley's story but he also finds motivation in an optimistic attitude and these words of wisdom:
"Be honest with who you are as a student leader," Finley said. "The biggest thing I could recommend to anyone would be to pursue your passion. Even if it takes a little longer, do what makes you happy."
Saginaw Valley State University is hosting an open house for students interested in learning more about the new master’s degree program in computer science and information systems approved by the Board of Control earlier this month. SVSU professors will be on hand from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 23 in Pioneer Hall room 238 to answer questions and provide information about the program.
The SVSU curriculum is designed to prepare graduates to work as software developers, system analysts, programmers, system engineers, and in other information technology positions.
In developing the program, SVSU faculty solicited feedback from auto companies such as Ford and Nexteer, as well a number of other firms from Auto-Owners Insurance to Yeo and Yeo. Government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, also evaluated the proposal. All of the reviewers indicated a growing demand for informational technology professionals with advanced degrees and supported SVSU’s proposed program.
SVSU will begin offering classes this fall toward the master’s degree program in computer science and information systems. Courses will be offered in three formats to serve working professionals: fully face-to-face instruction with evening classes; fully online classes; and hybrid courses that include both face-to-face and online learning.
The new graduate program expands upon successful bachelor’s degree programs at in computer science and information systems. SVSU students have fared well in online programming competitions; SVSU currently ranks No. 74 in the world at on such competition site (https://open.kattis.com/ranklist/universities).
For more information about SVSU’s master’s degree program in computer science and information systems, visit www.svsu.edu/mscsis.
Recent Saginaw Valley State University graduate Tory Thompson has received a national honor. The American Association of Teachers of French selected him to receive a 2017 Outstanding Senior in French Award.
Students are nominated for the award by faculty members based on academic excellence and an exceptional commitment to the study of French. Students are required to have completed at least three years of French study at the time of graduation and be non-native speakers of French.
A French major from Saginaw, Thompson began studying French at SVSU at an advanced 300 level while still enrolled at Clio High School as part of the dual-enrollment program. He worked as a French language lab assistant and French tutor during the winter 2016 semester. That same year, Thompson studied French at Université Lyon in Lyon, France for a semester in the fall.
Thompson was also a member of Alpha Mu Gamma, the national foreign language honor society as well as La Société Française, SVSU's French club.
The AATF was founded in 1927 and is the largest national professional association of French teachers in the world with nearly 10,000 members. Its mission is to promote the study of the French language and French-speaking cultures and literature.
Thompson plans to pursue graduate school in linguistics.
The Saginaw Valley State University Cardinal Formula Race team sped its way to another impressive performance, posting the top score among exclusively undergraduate programs for the third consecutive year at the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Design Series May 10-13 at Michigan International Speedway.
SVSU placed 45th overall among the 120 colleges and universities from across the world who competed. The Cardinals finished ahead of schools such as Michigan Tech (No. 51), Penn State (No.63) and Purdue (No. 67).
As has become a team trademark, SVSU again designed and built one of the fastest college race cars in the world, finishing sixth in the acceleration category. SVSU has won the acceleration event twice, in 2008 and 2014.
The team has set high standards for itself. Brooks Byam, SVSU professor of mechanical engineering and the team's faculty advisor since 1998, is fiercely competitive and wanted an even better showing, but he knows the students gave it their all.
“I am pleased given the level of competition and all new leadership on our team,” he said. “The students worked their tails off over the past year, and those that are returning are already excited to get started on next year's race car.”
The annual FSAE Collegiate Design Series competition features 120 teams from world-renowned colleges and universities with esteemed mechanical engineering programs. This year’s competition was won by the University of Stuttgart from Germany.
Teams from higher education institutions across the globe design and build Indy-style race cars to compete at the series, which features multiple competition categories such as endurance, acceleration, autocross, cost, presentation, and skid pad.
For more information on SVSU’s Cardinal Formula Racing program, visit www.svsu.edu/cardinalformularacing/.
From: Saginaw Township
High school: Valley Lutheran High School
Future: Michigan State College of Human Medicine, M.D. program
Mackenzie Allen arrived at Saginaw Valley State University with her sights set on an academic path that would lead her to a profession helping bodies heal. The Saginaw Township native departs with her aspirations confirmed and her prospects bright thanks to a community-minded commitment to hands-on education.
The future physician will begin her studies at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine with more than two years of experience in a Saginaw hospital emergency room, thanks to an extraordinary experiential learning opportunity through SVSU.
Allen participated in SVSU's Medical Scribe program, an innovative partnership that pairs undergraduate students with physicians at Saginaw’s Covenant HealthCare. Allen, who graduated from SVSU with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in May 2017, and other scribes assist the professionals with medical documentation.
“It’s been an incredible experience,” said Allen, a first-generation college student. “You get to see how doctors work and how they approach difficult situations. There are also the social aspects and basic medical processes we get to learn.”
The program involved a number of responsibilities, largely involving taking notes while doctors and nurses worked with patients. Allen also watched personnel perform medical procedures and assisted with gathering medical equipment.
“It definitely opens your eyes to the profession,” she said. “Going into college, you’re not as experienced in this world, but after being in the ER in downtown Saginaw for a certain amount of time, you see what people are dealing with.”
Filled with a spirit of servant leadership, the experience solidified Allen’s ambition to become a doctor, which dates back to her fascination with human anatomy studies at Valley Lutheran High School.
“There were situations that shook me, with some of the patients having harsh backgrounds and not many resources when they came in,” she said. “A lot of people are at their lowest moments there. I just want to try to make their care better, and steer them in the right direction.”
It’s an outlook such as that one that gives Heidi Lang, SVSU’s pre-health professions advisor, confidence that Allen possesses the qualities necessary to excel in the health care industry.
“Kenzie has great attention to detail as well as an intrinsic motivation to learn, to grow, and to improve,” Lang said.
“She has been a tremendous asset to SVSU, participating in multiple student organizations, volunteering and working in local health care settings, and excelling in her studies.”
Lang was impressed with the Allen's commitment to being a worldly health care worker. Allen’s academic minor was Spanish, and she used the second language during an internship with Saginaw-based Great Lakes Bay Health.
In the summer of 2016, Allen helped workers with the community health care center provide medical check-ups for Spanish migrants working in Michigan for the summer.
“A team of us would drive out to the farms where they were working and make sure they were getting the resources they needed,” she said. “Some of them needed help, and we were there for them.”
Lang said Allen was an outstanding undergraduate with great potential as a prospective physician.
“She will be missed, but we look forward to following her journey,” Lang said.
It is a demanding journey, to be sure, but Lang and others are convinced Allen has what it takes and that she will be motivated by her desire to lead a life filled with caring for others.
High school: Howell High School
Future: full-time position in The Dow Chemical Co.’s accounting department
Cameron Pratt didn’t need a math equation to discover his professional trajectory. But the math didn’t hurt.
The Howell native discovered his love for accounting during his sophomore year at Saginaw Valley State University, where he enrolled in an introduction to financial accounting course. He spent much of his remaining time at SVSU capitalizing on opportunities that empowered him to grow and take on new challenges.
After graduating from the institution in May 2017, Pratt’s dedication and hard work will pay off when he begins a full-time job working in the accounting department at The Dow Chemical Company in June.
“I found a purpose in the numbers of accounting that I couldn’t find in any other academic program,”
he said. “I fell in love with the business.”
Pratt accepted the job offer 10 months earlier, contingent on his graduation. The combination of factors leading to that opportunity included classroom studies, outside-of-classroom university organizations and a Dow internship Pratt discovered through SVSU’s Career Services.
Hired as an intern with Dow’s accounting department in the summer of 2016, Pratt spent much of his 3-month stint on a single project that involved collecting and analyzing data relating to a pricing policy that affected the company globally.
“I was using a (computer) system that only 11 people in the world knew how to use,” Pratt said. “It was a great opportunity.”
His complex analytics and thoughtful conclusions caught the attention of his employers.
“The rest is history,” said Pratt, who shortly thereafter was offered a full-time position that will begin June 12.
Pratt’s path to Dow started at SVSU with that introductory accounting class, and included one of the university’s competitive programs for business students: The Vitito Global Leadership Institute. The initiative develops leadership abilities for students enrolled in SVSU’s College of Business & Management, while exposing them to international business environments.
Kaustav Misra, an associate professor of economics and chair of the Vitito program, described Pratt as “dedicate, passionate and hard working.”
“He is definitely one of our best students in the college,” Misra said. “He is modest, respectful and has a very high level of people skills, which will definitely help him in the long run to grow as a leader. His sincerity, work ethic and team spirit are really commendable.”
Pratt was selected as one of 12 Vitito Fellows in the winter of 2016. The program heightened his understanding of international commerce while also providing him with a new network of friends.
“The Vitito Fellowship connected me with 11 amazing individuals who I still keep in close contact with,” he said. Recently, when a family member of a Vitito Fellow died, Pratt and others with the group attended the funeral and offered support.
“The camaraderie involved in that program is one of the big things I will remember fondly when I think of my experience at SVSU,” he said.
Pratt also spent time as a student tutor for accounting.
“When you work with students on that level, it helps you better understand the subject you’re teaching,” he said. “It instills confidence. It’s really fulfilling to work with people and help them in that way.”
Pratt said the experience as a mentor also exposed him to another role he one day could pursue: an accounting professorship.
“Something like that could be way down the road, but I feel like working as a tutor showed me that I could enjoy teaching the subject,” he said.
Pratt also served as president of the SVSU College of Business & Management’s Dean’s Student Advisory Council, exposing him to more opportunities to sharpen his leadership skills.
“It gave me confidence in myself that I could be a leader,” he said. “I had to be accountable for my actions and push people to reach their potentials. You’re never truly done learning how to lead, but that was a good start for me.”
Pratt defies the stereotype that accountants have no sense of humor. His varied interests led him to pursue another of SVSU's multifaceted opportunities. During his junior year, Pratt was a writer for an on-campus sketch comedy troupe called Cardinal Night Live, based in part on NBC’s Saturday Night Live program.
“That was a unique departure from my normal activities,” he said. “That really helped me broaden my horizons. It was a great experience.”
“A great experience” is the same phrase Pratt used when recalling — and running the numbers — on his years as an SVSU undergraduate.
From: Bay City
High school: Bay City Western
Major: Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education
Future: Full-time teaching position with Bay City Public Schools
On the day Mallory Rivard walked across the stage at Saginaw Valley State University's May 2017 commencement ceremonies, she already had one foot set in her future career: inspiring young minds as a classroom teacher.
After four years at SVSU, Rivard said that graduation was bittersweet. She doesn't plan to stray too far from home, though, after accepting a full-time teaching position at Bay City Public Schools.
"I've always had a passion for the Great Lakes Bay Region because I feel like I'm such a product of the system," she said. "I want to give back to that because this area has invested so much in me."
Having grown up in Bay City, Rivard was no stranger to SVSU. By the time she was a senior in high school, she knew that she would be making the transition from a Bay City Western Warrior to a Saginaw Valley Cardinal.
"I've had a really strong connection to this community and SVSU just felt like an extension of that," she said. "It was both a big campus feel and a small, hometown feel. Saginaw Valley has a very highly acknowledged education program and that's what I'm passionate about."
SVSU made Rivard's decision easy. Not only did she get to remain close to home and engaged with the community she loved, but she would get to do all of it while graduating debt free.
"The private scholarships that SVSU has afforded me have been tremendous," she said.
Long before she arrived at SVSU, Rivard knew she wanted to teach.
"When I was in third grade, my teacher at the time – Sharron Travis – always made me feel like she just wanted me to succeed, not only in the classroom, but outside of the classroom as well," Rivard explained. "It made me feel so good and I wanted to do that for other kids."
As a dual major in elementary education and early childhood education, Rivard has had many field-work experiences that have led to real world opportunities.
"At other universities, I know I wouldn't have had nearly as many opportunities as I've had here," she said. "SVSU has allowed me to create great networks with educators and administrators while giving me hands-on experience to know what the real world is like and knowing what real children in a classroom are like. That has really helped me become the young professional that I am today."
Rivard is also a member of the Kantzler Fellowship -- an SVSU service and learning initiative comprised of a select group of Bay County students. Through this fellowship, Rivard has worked closely with Bryan Crainer, SVSU's associate director of student life and leadership programs.
"I have relied on Mallory numerous times to serve as a mentor, a role model, and a leader to younger students coming from Bay County schools," Crainer said. "She always serves in that capacity with a grace and positive attitude that leaves those students feeling a sense of confidence and security."
Crainer remembers his first interaction with Rivard.
"I had the pleasure of interviewing Mallory during her senior year of high school as part of her application for SVSU's Foundation Scholars Program," he said. "I remember telling Janna Kern, the former advisor of Foundation Scholars, that Mallory was the most polished and impressive high school student I had ever interacted with. That same level of professionalism followed her to SVSU and has, naturally, grown in her time here."
Rivard is among the most highly engaged students you will find, sharing her enthusiasm with a host of organizations. At SVSU, she served as the philanthropy chair for her sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, joined the SVSU cheerleading team as well as the National Society of Leadership and Success. Rivard served as an executive board member for Cardinals for Special Olympics; she was a co-founder and vice president of the Saginaw Valley Lions Club as well as an active participant in Alternative Breaks and the Order of Omega – a Greek life leadership organization.
Rivard also is an active participant in the Miss America organization. Not only does her participation help pay for school but it provides Rivard with endless volunteer opportunities. Through the organization, Rivard was previously named Miss Saginaw County.
"It was awesome," she said. "I felt like I was really representing my university."
Rivard currently holds the title of Miss South Central and she will compete for Miss Michigan this June.
As a student leader at SVSU, Rivard was also offered the opportunity to attend the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders in Washington D.C. last summer.
"I was one of two women selected from SVSU to go," she said. "There were motivational speakers and workshops but I also got to lobby in Congress on behalf of the American Association of University Women for a bill regarding student debt and how to refinance it."
From lobbying on national issues, Rivard's multifaceted education also extended internationally; she completed a study abroad trip to India over the summer of 2016. There, she spent four weeks teaching lessons to girls at the Kittur Rani Channamma Residential School for Girls.
"I was able to teach some science lessons there," she said. "It gave me the opportunity to see how their educational system was set up. I think my trip – travelling to India – was a huge highlight for me during my time at SVSU. I was so emotional when I was there. I don't know if it was because it was the culmination of my education or the fact that it was my first set of students. It was so real."
Rivard's enthusiasm for education came to her naturally. Since then, she has continued to work hard every day driving closer and closer to her goal of gaining employment as an educator in the Great Lakes Bay Region.
"This has always been the goal," she said. "I just want to teach."
Saginaw Valley State University secondary education majors Renee Okenka of Swartz Creek, and Samantha Geffert of Farmington Hills, are studying abroad at Shikoku University in Tokushima, Japan this summer, and their trip includes a special purpose: getting a newly established Writing Center off to a good start.
Both Geffert and Okenka are peer tutors at SVSU's Writing Center, a place where students can go to receive feedback or assistance on papers, speeches, résumés and more.
“The Writing Center is really an asset to the students,” Okenka said. “We try to provide as many resources for them as we can. Just having a space for writing to help cultivate their writing abilities is such an important part of going to college and becoming a professional.”
Because of their expertise within SVSU's Writing Center, Okenka and Geffert will be lending a hand at Shikoku University's newly established Writing Center. They arrived in Japan Friday, April 28.
“My hope is that working with a native English speaker at the Shikoku Writing Center will help supplement what students are learning in the English as a second language classes at the university,” Okenka said.
Shikoku University has been a sister university of SVSU for more than 20 years, beginning first as a faculty exchange program and expanding to include student exchange programs as well.
In addition to supporting Shikoku’s Writing Center, Geffert and Okenka also will be conducting research while abroad. Both students have a minor in English as a second language which will play a role in their data collection.
“We will be keeping journals in order to record reflective evaluations about our experiences,” Geffert said. “We will be working through a list of questions that consider how our training - both in the Writing Center and in the English as a second language program - plays into our ability to tutor.”
The Writing Center is designed to be a place where students can bring their work and ideas and know that they're being heard.
“I think that's the benefit of having a peer as a resource,” Geffert said. “Our Writing Center focuses on the creation of an environment where students feel like they're being validated and supported. I think that will carry over into Shikoku's new Writing Center as well.”
Theo Hoxie was 15 the first time he stole morphine from his cancer-stricken mother’s medicine cabinet. Using a syringe lifted from a friend’s father, he injected the drug into a vein and felt the weight of the world lift from his shoulders.
It was an act of desperation from a young man chasing a high he first experienced months earlier when he popped a Vicodin out of curiosity. The morphine and the Vicodin — both belonging to a category of drugs known as opioids — offered reprieve from a home he considered torn. Neither pharmaceutical sealed the breach, but each provided a temporary escape from the despair of it all.
“It was like my soul had been awakened,” Hoxie said, nearly two decades later, of those initial euphoric experiences.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is the feeling I have been missing my whole life.’”
And, for much of the rest of his life, Hoxie chased that feeling. The pursuit led him down a deadly road. He dropped out of high school and instead graduated to more potent opioids. Oxycontin. Methadone. Heroin. More heroin.
He spent much of the next decade-and-a-half living in vehicles and alleyways, serving jail time for possessing drug paraphernalia, befriending and falling in love with other opioid addicts, then watching many of them die. Hoxie, for a long time, accepted he would die from the affliction, too.
He isn’t waiting to die anymore.
His fortunes seemed to change the day he walked into The University Clinic, a Bay City-based primary care facility forged from a partnership between SVSU and the Bay County Health Department. Over the years, he sought sobriety at 16 different residential treatment centers and five community health clinics, but at those places, Hoxie always fell off the wagon within weeks. Sometimes, days.
The Jackson native will turn 33 on July 6. When that day arrives, he will mark nearly two years of independence from opioids, by far his longest stretch since swallowing that first Vicodin at age 15. While associates credit Hoxie’s determination for the accomplishment, he is quick to share the triumph with others.
“I’m alive today because of The University Clinic,” said Hoxie, now employed and living with his girlfriend in Tawas.
“I truly believe that clinic saved my life.”
While the specter of relapse always looms over individuals with drug histories, Hoxie said the clinic’s interdisciplinary approach and dedicated staff — including SVSU faculty members with clinical experience and student interns training alongside them — provided his best chance ever at a healthy and happy existence. The office’s medical staff supervised his detox from opioids, its occupational therapists helped relieve the pains of his drug-abused body, and its social workers set him up for a sustainable lifestyle, free of drugs.
His ongoing recovery is a success story for The University Clinic, but it’s a rare bright spot in an otherwise dark narrative underway in the United States.
Opioid addiction has surged nationally in recent years, prompting medical professionals and lawmakers alike to label the problem an “epidemic” — the same status applied to history’s deadliest outbreaks of smallpox, polio, typhus and the bubonic plague.
In a 2016 report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced the rate of deaths related to opioids increased 200 percent between the years 2000 and 2014. In 2015, more than 33,000 people died from the epidemic.
No neighborhood is safe from the problem. Its reach stretches from the streets of crime-infested communities, where Oxy is traded for unseemly acts … to doctor’s offices, where painkiller prescriptions sometimes are offered like candy. Its victims range from homeless people opting for heroin over food … to parents passed out from overdosing in idle-running vehicles, their infant children still strapped to safety seats in the back.
Bay City and its surroundings certainly aren’t safe from the opioid problem, as The University Clinic’s staff and associates discovered. And Hoxie is far from the first opioid addict — and likely far from the last — to seek help there.
“I never thought I’d see the day when more people were dying from overdoses than automobile accidents,” said Joel Strasz, who began his health care career in Bay County in the late 1990s.
“That’s what’s happened, though. It’s happening here.”
Four years ago, Strasz was promoted to health officer — the top post — at the Bay County Health Department, where The University Clinic now is housed in downtown Bay City. During his time there, he watched the opioid crisis develop both afar and near.
The CDC in March 2016 issued recommendations to the nation’s doctors, urging caution when prescribing highly-addictive painkillers. Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. quadrupled. Medical professionals had lowered the threshold for deciding when patients needed painkillers and how long they needed the medicine, experts argued, and those increasingly lax standards resulted in more Americans growing dependent on — and eventually abusing — the pharmaceuticals. In many cases, those pills served as gateway drugs to cheaper alternatives with more potency and deadly potential such as heroin.
Those national trends took an alarmingly local turn in recent years, Strasz observed.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services figures showed medical professionals in Bay County wrote more opioid prescriptions-per-person (1.9) than in any of the 82 other counties in the state in 2015. That figure represented a sizable spike from Bay County’s 1.2 opioids prescribed-per-person just six years earlier.
The statistical surge seemed to coincide with other trends.
Overdose deaths in Bay County jumped from five people in 2005 to 25 people in 2016. Of those 25, 23 died from opioids.
Riverhaven Substance Abuse Services, a recently-defunct office within Bay-Arenac Behavioral Health, reported 15 percent of clients receiving treatment for substance abuse at the facility were seeking help for opioid abuse in 2005. That figure soared to 48 percent in 2014.
“The numbers didn’t look good,” Strasz said. “We needed to do something.”
In May 2015, he issued a public health advisory for Bay County regarding the opioid epidemic. The advisory remains in effect today.
“I’m waiting for the problem to lessen significantly before ending the advisory,” Strasz said. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to do that anytime soon.”
Raising public awareness is one approach taken by The Bay County HOPE (Heroin Opioid Prevention and Elimination) Project, an organization Strasz assembled as part of the public health advisory.
Its members discuss the problem at community forums as well as middle and high schools where opioid abuse also is on the rise in Bay County.
HOPE members apply other strategies to curbing the epidemic, including referring addicts to treatment centers.
“That’s where The University Clinic has become so important,” Strasz said.
The clinic began as an experiment. No other county-run health department in the state housed primary care staff, which offer the sort of services patients often seek when visiting family doctors and physicians.
Funded by a $1.5 million U.S. Health and Human Services grant, SVSU and Bay County Health Department officials opened the clinic’s doors in January 2015, providing a variety of health care resources to clients who were less likely to seek primary care at traditional facilities.
“People suffering from chronic health conditions like hypertension and diabetes are who we targeted first,” said Kathleen Schachman, SVSU’s Randall Wickes Endowed Chair in Nursing and one of the clinic’s coordinators.
Clients trickled in at a slow pace for months. Early efforts at promoting public awareness for the facility attracted relatively few people, Schachman said.
Then the clinic redirected its outreach and began seeing results within its first year.
“Things really started to pick up when our social workers and student interns reached out to homeless shelters in the area,” she said. “This just happened to be a population that had nowhere else to go.”
Soon, positive word-of-mouth from clients attracted others. The office’s proximity to a bus station, the county jail and courthouse, and a park known as one where people abused drugs led growing numbers of individuals with limited resources to the clinic’s front door.
“In some cases, these are people who don’t usually get the care they need until they are in a crisis, and don’t always show up for their appointments,” Schachman said. “A lot of places don’t want these people as patients, but we are willing to take them on, and to treat them with respect.”
Serving the homeless, in particular, made Schachman acutely aware more resources were necessary.
To meet those needs, Schachman applied for — and received — a trio of grants in 2016 worth a total of $2.9 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
The funds beefed up the clinic’s mental health resources, established a partnership with Wayne State University, secured an alliance with Bay-Arenac Behavioral Health, and expanded a three-days-a-week office schedule to five.
As the clinic evolved during its second year of existence, the increased traffic revealed a growing community problem. Clients arrived with a variety of needs outside of mental health-related issues such as high blood pressure, lung disease, and diabetes, among others. Many of these problems, though, often were accompanied by another: opioid abuse.
Dorothy Lee, an SVSU associate professor of nursing and a nurse practitioner at the clinic, estimates two-thirds of her clients suffer from opioid dependency.
“Some come in — their heart on their sleeve — and ask for help with it,” said Lee, who has 25 years of experience as a nurse in facilities across the state. “With others, they’re much more guarded, and say they’re here for something else.”
“Something else” often involves a desire for the staff to write a prescription for opioid-based painkillers. While Lee and others at the clinic are authorized to order such medicine, education and experience help them distinguish individuals in need of pain relief from those seeking a high.
The staff does not write prescriptions for those in search of the latter. Instead, the clinic offers them help in achieving sobriety. Sometimes the patient welcomes the extended hand. Sometimes not.
“There is the attitude of, ‘It’s OK, because at least you came to us for help, and we want to help,’” Lee said. “They might leave frustrated when they don’t get what they want, but sometimes those same people will come back later when they realize we can help them and that we aren’t going to judge them.”
Lee said The University Clinic staff recognize people addicted to opioids are suffering from a disease, not a weakness, as some in the public — and in medical care circles — perceive the problem.
“No one becomes an addict by going into a situation saying, ‘I’m going to make a bad decision today,’” Lee said. “They start off thinking they can control themselves, but that’s not the case. There’s so much that gets broken and hurt when you become addicted to a drug.”
The staff’s empathetic approach was what distinguished The University Clinic from all the other facilities Theo Hoxie visited while trying to kick his opioid habit.
“I thought it might be one of those community clinics you had to call for an appointment at 8 in the morning and wait in line,” he said. “That was not the case. They took me in with hugs and smiles. They listened to my story. I’ve never had that before.”
Hoxie initially was evaluated by Lee.
“I told her I was an addict, but she didn’t treat me like I was an addict,” Hoxie said. “Most doctors treat addicts like crap. The University Clinic staff wanted to understand me, and then they wanted to help me.” Lee connected Hoxie with the clinic’s social work supervisor, Sherry LaMere, an SVSU social work adjunct instructor with 34 years of clinical experience. LaMere and her master’s degree-level social work interns assisted Hoxie in securing his first phone. He was provided with ongoing therapy as well as help in crafting a résumé that landed him a job as a therapist technologist working with autistic children.
Hoxie continues to visit the clinic, nearly two years after staff there helped him get clean. Lee continues to treat him for the Hepatitis C he developed from injecting himself with an infected needle. Social work staff check in to ensure he remains connected with support systems in the community. He also visits the clinic to receive a healthy dose of something else:
“Love,” he said. “That place has shown me so much love.”
Hoxie so far has proven to be a success story for the clinic. Other examples show why there is a need for the clinic.
“It’s heartbreaking, some of the stories you hear,” Lee said. “I asked this girl who came here once — she was 20 and had been on heroin since 11 or 12 — ‘How do you define health for you?’ She said, ‘Health, to me, is not trying to kill myself every time I try to get off this stuff.’”
Lee hasn’t heard from that particular patient in months, and fears the worst.
The best chance many addicts may have for recovery lay in the clinic’s interdisciplinary approach, staff say.
“The more we look at our patients’ lives in a comprehensive way, the more we can help them,” LaMere said. “The less often you have to refer a patient to an outside service, the more likely it is we can keep them engaged, helping them immediately and over a sustained period of time. Otherwise, people can get lost in the transition of care.”
Offering a “one-stop shop” for health care needs help staff build a rapport with patients. With rapport comes trust.
“It’s all about trust,” LaMere said. “Frequently, that means interdisciplinary staff connect with patients at the emotional, physical and mental level.” Sometimes that effort involves literally meeting them where they are. LaMere has traveled throughout the city to locate University Clinic patients who missed appointments for a variety of reasons.
Officials hope the clinic’s reach will expand soon. Schachman plans to apply for grants aimed at establishing satellite clinics north of Bay City.
In the meantime, the downtown clinic will serve as a center for healing in a community struggling against an epidemic.
“These are people who have been exposed to war,” Lee said of Hoxie and other opioid addicts. “It’s a different kind of war, but that’s what it is. That’s what we’re faced with here.”