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July 10, 2014

SVSU’s Roberts Fellows share memories of changed outlooks, overseas experiences

SVSU's 2013-14 class of Roberts Fellows in May traveled to Asia, where they visited sites including the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.There is no such thing as a “former” Roberts Fellow.

Andrew Swihart, a faculty adviser for Saginaw Valley State University’s Roberts Fellowship Program, is quick to make that point whenever asked about those who have participated in the student leadership development initiative over the years.

The lifetime Roberts Fellow rule also holds true for “The 15s,” a moniker he gives those involved in the program’s 15th class picked during the initiative’s 15th year of existence. The 15s aren’t “former” Fellows, he insists, even though their year-long training — a mix of seminars, projects, adventures and misadventures — came to a close this May.

Instead, Swihart simply considers the first phase of The 15’s fellowship complete. Now the 2013-14 group has graduated to become established leaders, dependable SVSU ambassadors to the world, and mentors to future Fellows. But never “former” Fellows.

There’s no such thing.

“Every class has a different personality,” said Swihart, an SVSU professor of psychology. “The 15s are an incredibly cohesive group. More than most classes, they became very good friends with each other.”

A compass for life

That bond began to form when the group of 12 first met as a unit in spring 2013. It strengthened during the program’s weekly Friday seminars in the fall, their sessions with inspiring leaders in the winter, and all the off-the-calendar fun that happened in between. The chemistry was solid by the time the dozen embarked on the program’s 3-week capstone journey to China, Taiwan and Japan in May.

Roberts Fellow Audrey Sayles recalled that camaraderie between her classmates, Swihart and Brian Thomas, the SVSU associate professor of sociology who served as the group’s second faculty adviser.

The Roberts Fellows visited a number of sites in East Asia including the Great Wall of China.“Many of us would get together for dinner the night before our Friday morning classes and we would hang out for hours in Bennigan's, singing karaoke and just enjoying the conversations,” said Sayles, a psychology major from Jackson.

“Over the year, we became closer and closer as a group, which was evident by one of the classes near the end of the winter semester, when we decided that we should celebrate Andy Swihart's birthday,” she said. “We brought in cake and party hats — which we did get our professors to wear.”

The program created more than friendship. For some, the initiative provided a compass for life.

This was the case for Nancy Lackey, who credits the program for steering her in new directions, both professionally and philosophically.

The biology major from Beaverton was pursuing a research-based career in the biological sciences, but her Roberts Fellowship involvement inspired her to pursue an avenue in the field she’s more passionate about: conservation education and ecotourism development.

And Lackey credits a change in her worldly perspective to the group’s tour of the atomic bomb detonation site in Hiroshima. The experience challenged her “intellectually and emotionally” more than any other moment in her life, she said.

“During my education, I thought I had developed a pretty firm view on that matter, but when I actually went there in person and saw the structures, the artifacts and read the stories, my previous beliefs shattered,” Lackey said.

“I am still trying to put the pieces back together in a way that makes sense to me, but it serves as a humbling reminder of why strong intercultural relationships are so important, and of the consequences of what happens when they fall apart.”

Lackey wasn’t alone in her broadening outlook. The East Asia trip — where students visited historic sites and SVSU sister institutions alike — provided the team a number of opportunities for personal growth.

Never 'former'

Swihart said one of the trip’s assignments flexed a muscle many didn’t realize they had. The 15s were asked to travel in small groups to designated locations in Beijing without using their cell phones and without assistance from faculty advisers.

“It’s a leadership activity,” Swihart said. “It develops self-confidence.”

Roberts Fellows participated in a number of activities in 2013-14, including this English Camp with Shikoku University students in Japan.Everyone passed the test, and the exercise came in handy later in the journey when political science major Samantha Jackson was separated from the group in Hiroshima.

“She beat us back to the hotel,” Swihart said of the Goodells native. “The other students were upset, but I wasn’t anxious at all. I thought, ‘She’ll solve this,’ and she did.”

The Roberts Fellowship Program was designed to build leadership within students already considered solid leaders. The 15s accomplished that feat, Swihart said. Their triumph was illustrated in part by the service projects they completed.

This year’s class split in two groups to work on separate projects. One initiative was geared toward helping Saginaw’s Houghton Jones Neighborhood Association while a second team created an educational program marrying traditional curriculum with exercise. As an example, participants engaged in a spelling exercise would simultaneously perform workout routines.

Roberts Fellow Kate Nankervis, of Saginaw, was part of the latter group. They worked with Pulse3 Foundation, a Saginaw organization that develops educational and community initiatives that promote healthier lifestyles, to design the hybrid educational coursework.

“This was my favorite memory because it is something I am very passionate about,” said Nankervis, an elementary education major. “One of the highlights for this class was that we were able to give back to the community. Each member of the group brought their own unique skills, and when we worked together, we pulled off something pretty amazing.”

Sayles agreed she and her fellow 15s will never be “former” Roberts Fellows, and the bond they forged will last a lifetime.

“It was so hard for all of us to leave on our last day in Taiwan,” Sayles said. “It is something that is not easily explained. Rather, it needs to be experienced to be understood completely.  It was — as cliché as it is — life-altering.  I don't think I will ever forget this program, or this year.“

About the Roberts Fellowship Program

The 2013-14 Roberts Fellowship Program class also includes Cara Cole, a social work major from St. Louis; Marissa Geyer, a political science major from Auburn; Shaya Jewani, an economics major from Fort Gratiot; Rachel Katch, an athletic training major from St. Charles; Jeremy Killion, a history major from Clio; Abigail Seamon, an elementary education major from New Lothrop; Trent Varva, a political science major from Saginaw; and Kerri Vasold, an exercise science major from Shepherd.

The Roberts Fellows blog is available here:

Established in 1999, the program is named in honor of Donna Roberts of Midland, who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to SVSU through her personal generosity and prior service on the Board of Control and the Board of Fellows. A respected attorney, business leader and philanthropist, Roberts retired from The Dow Chemical Company, where she was Secretary and Assistant General Counsel. She is an honorary director of the SVSU Foundation Board.