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May 5, 2016

Christina Swain: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: South Lyon

High school: South Lyon 

Major: nursing

Future: nurse, Indiana University Health

Christina_Swain_HHSBuildingFrom the moment she arrived at Saginaw Valley State University, Christina Swain knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish.

Swain was an early admit into the nursing program. That is, she applied as a high school senior and had her spot saved for her when she arrived to the university. 

The South Lyon native discovered she had a passion for science and teaching during her high school years.

“At first I wanted to be a teacher, but then I took AP [Advanced Placement] chemistry, which got me really interested in science,” she said. “I found that nursing was a way I could combine the two, and I am very happy with my decision.”

That decision has led her to land a job immediately after she receives a bachelor’s degree in nursing from SVSU in May 2016. Swain recently accepted an offer as a nurse in the surgical-trauma unit within Indiana University Health, an Indiana University School of Medicine-affiliated healthcare system in Indiana.

Eventually, she wants to pursue a master’s degree in nursing education. She has a passion for education and would love to teach other nurses. Swain said, eventually, she would like to teach at a university.

SVSU’s nursing program provided Swain with an opportunity to become a senior nursing mentor in SVSU’s simulation lab. There, she was able to help other nursing students excel in the program. According to Swain, academia comes easy, and she has the ability to explain material in a more practical way for students to grasp.

“Christina has been an outstanding student mentor and is respected by her peers, nursing faculty and the simulation educators,” said Sharon Panepucci, simulation lab coordinator. “Her compassion for others and eagerness to learn is going to make her a fantastic nurse.”

Swain was able to leave her footprint behind with her senior thesis project. She wrote a simulation for nursing students about a preterm infant going into respiratory distress. Swain made all the props, set them up and facilitated the simulation. She had so much satisfaction watching her project come together, and was proud to learn that the nursing instructors at SVSU plan to integrate her simulation into the curriculum for future nursing students. Swain will also present her project at a conference in Texas this June.

In addition to her senior thesis project, Swain traveled to Anchorage with a group of nursing students. There, they studied the effects of vitamin D exposure on depression and suicide. They were able to present their studies to the local hospital in Anchorage and at a conference in Milwaukee.

Not only was Swain involved with several prestigious academic projects, but she was also a part of the 2011 SVSU cross country team that made school history by going to Washington State University for nationals. She looks back on her cross-country experience as something that challenged her, but made her an all-around better individual. Swain said she learned a lot from being a student-athlete that she can apply to her professional career, and is grateful for teammates who became like family to her.

Swain is proud of all her accomplishments as she leaves SVSU and is excited to take the next step towards her future.

“I want to make an impact on the nursing profession as a whole,” she said. “I’ve gotten a good start here and I want to take that with me throughout my professional career.” 

May 5, 2016

Nicole Calandrino: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: Clinton Township

High School: Chippewa Valley

Major: economics

Future: full-time job with the FDIC

Nicole-Calandrino-DoanIn the depths of a Utah canyon, Nicole Calandrino received a phone call with news that made her want to shout with joy from a mountaintop.

After a nationwide applicant search, the Saginaw Valley State University graduating senior earned a job interview at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the agency created by Congress after the Great Depression to supervise and restore trust in the American banking system.

Calandrino received the news in January 2016 while volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah during an SVSU-sponsored trip with classmates.

“I remember I barely had any cell phone reception the whole time, but then I started to get this call with a Virginia number,” she said. “There was one bar on my phone, and I had to shout to get them to understand me. I almost started crying, I was so happy.”

One month later, the Clinton Township native accepted a job offer — contingent upon her graduation — as a financial institutions specialist at the FDIC’s Grand Rapids office. Now, with her May 2016 graduation date approaching, the economics major is close to fulfilling the final requirement necessary to join the FDIC.

Earning the opportunity was no small feat. Calandrino was one of 1,000 candidates who applied and 93 interviewed for FDIC job openings across the nation earlier this year.

She plans to log her first day at work in July. The accomplishment is the culmination of years of dedicated studies, hard work and recognition as an exceptional student at SVSU.

That SVSU experience almost didn’t happen. After graduating from Chippewa Valley High School in 2011, she originally planned to attend a different higher education institution. But her sister, Heather, who was enrolled at SVSU, convinced the younger Calandrino to visit the campus and sit in on biology class.

Her sibling’s campaigning — along with being offered SVSU’s full-ride President’s Scholarship — led Calandrino to enroll at the Kochville Township university.

“That choice is really paying off now,” she said.

She began her college life with sights set on becoming a biology or chemical researcher, but her interests changed and an opportunity made possible through SVSU led to new aspirations. Through the university’s co-op program, she landed a risk management position at Buena Vista Township-based Nexteer Automotive’s finance department in November 2014.

“That’s been an invaluable experience,” she said. “I’ve been able to coordinate all data for Nexteer’s insurance renewal, work with people in 12 different countries, and help create standard processes for assessing risk worldwide. I discovered I really liked working with numbers.”

Later that year, she was one of a select group of students involved in The Vitito Global Leadership Institute, a three-semester-long student leadership development program offered by SVSU’s College of Business & Management.

“The Vitito program really helped me develop my leadership skills, and focus on international and business leadership,” she said. “Then we traveled to Budapest for eight days, which was amazing. We visited the U.S. embassy and one of the largest banks in Hungary, and talked to entrepreneurs there. I was immersed in the culture.”

She made lifelong friends through the Vitito initiative — along with a key mentor. Through the program, she met Dom Monastiere, SVSU’s Boutell/First Merit Bank Executive in Residence.

When Calandrino saw the FDIC job opening listed on SVSU’s Career Services website in August 2015, she sought advice from Monastiere, who spent 26 years as an executive with Midland-based Chemical Bank.

“He was really helpful in telling me what an FDIC official does and whether it was a good fit for me,” she said. “Normally, I ignore national job openings, but I felt something clicked with this job.”

She said her Nexteer Automotive co-op work and selection as a Vitito Fellow may have helped clinch her the job offer. “Those really set me apart,” she said.

Calandrino’s responsibilities will include working with banking institutions located largely along western Michigan. While those visits won’t send her to any more Utah canyons — or mountaintops, for that matter — Calandrino is thrilled about where SVSU has helped her land.

“I’m excited and ready to get started,” she said.

May 5, 2016

Madeline Lefere: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: Dundee

High school: Dundee

Major: integrated science education

Future: job searching

Madeline-Lefere-classIf teaching isn’t in Madeline Lefere’s DNA, she was certainly empowered with the role of educator at a young age.

It’s a role she doesn’t plan to relinquish as an adult.

Lefere, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in integrated science education from Saginaw Valley State University in May 2016, hopes to secure her first full-time teaching position shortly thereafter.

But she began teaching long before that. Lefere, whose mother taught third grade at a parochial school, is the oldest of four siblings. She also has 35 first cousins — yes, 35.

“My brothers are younger and so are a lot of my cousins, and I was like a teacher figure to them,” said Lefere, a Catholic who started by teaching bedtime prayers to her younger family members.

She also acted as a teacher to those who were older. At age 6, Lefere’s father at times asked her to give lessons to his catechism class.

“Teaching has always been a part of my life,” she said. “I don’t know how to turn it off now.”

During her last semester as an undergraduate, much of that self-discovery continued in a K-12 environment a few miles from campus, at Saginaw Township’s White Pine Middle School.

She began there in January 2016 as a student-teacher for seventh grade science, learning under the tutelage of a full-time educator. One month into the experience, school leaders felt confident enough in the early promise Lefere showed in the classroom that they elevated her to long-term substitute status. She was assigned to educate eighth grade earth science classes until the end of the academic year for a full-time teacher who resigned suddenly.

“This happened in the middle of the week, with no warning,” the Dundee native said of the quick role change. “They asked if I could step in, and I said, ‘Sure, I’m up for the challenge.’”

And it was a challenge. Lefere did not inherit a lesson plan from her predecessor. She improvised much of the material using strategies learned in her SVSU studies as well as the examples set by K-12 teachers who inspired her as a youth.

“For that first unit together, the students and I spent most of the time settling in with each other, and figuring out each other,” she said of her first weeks in the new role. “When you’re a student, and you go half the school year with one teacher, and then there’s a new teacher — and one who was a different gender, too — it can be quite an adjustment.”

Lefere, though, said she wasn’t intimidated. In fact, it has proven to be an exhilarating experience, she said. Many of the lesson plans she designed have involved hands-on experiments — including one activity where students were tasked with creating a diorama of the ocean floor based on a paper mache model that Lefere and her fiancé built.

She said the interactive, hands-on activities — as opposed to book-based assignments — helped better inspire students in their studies of science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM. Building interest in STEM among K-12 students is part of the classroom lesson plan for Lefere, who herself was inspired at a young age to enjoy such studies.

“You hear the word ‘science,’ and a lot of students think they are going to be taking a lot of notes and read a lot of textbooks,” she said.

“There’s so much more to it. There’s a lot of exploration and realizing you can find your own answers by performing experiments and analyzing data. That’s how I felt when I was in high school, and I would like to create that kind of excitement to investigate and explore in my students.”

She said already she’s made that kind of connection for some of her students.

“There are some instances where I could see they hadn’t thought about science in this way before,” Lefere said. “That’s what excites me about teaching.”

When the academic year ends, Lefere said she doesn’t plan on applying for the White Pine Middle School vacancy on a permanent basis. Instead, she will return to her hometown and seek a teaching job close to her family and soon-to-be husband.

Wherever she lands, Lefere is excited for her future as a teacher.

“I’ve learned so much about myself through education and through being an educator,” she said. “It’s a great profession.”

May 5, 2016

Kimberly Salwey: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: East Tawas

High school: Tawas

Major: marketing

Future: travel expert with the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau

Kimberly_Salwey_BellThe sight of those T-shirts still makes Kimberly Salwey smile.

The graduating senior remembers spending one of the first days of her final year at Saginaw Valley State University selling 1,000 $1 shirts to freshmen. The sales were a fundraiser for Forever Red, a campus pride-inspiring organization that provided four $250 Cardinal Forever Initiative scholarships from the proceeds that day.

“It was a beautiful day out in the courtyard,” said Salwey, who served as president of Forever Red her senior year. “All of the Forever Red members were coming together to make this a success, and all the freshmen got their first dose of Red Pride.

“This past year, the Cardinal Forever Initiative was different for me because I really grasped the concept of giving back. It was a great way to kick off my senior year. Today, I can still walk through the halls and find students wearing the shirt, and that brings a smile to my face.”

Her inspired efforts brought Salwey a number of other things this academic year, too, including a full-time job offer. Thanks in part to connections she made through her SVSU network, Salwey was offered — and accepted — a travel expert position at the Bay City office of Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Her first day is May 23, when she will begin working largely with the organization’s website,, which provides information on lodging, events, restaurants and tons of other information on Great Lakes Bay Region communities.

“I’m ready for the next stage, the next adventure,” she said. “I’m very happy I’ll be able to stay close to home and close to SVSU, because that’s where my heart has been.”

Salwey received the Outstanding Student Leader award in February 2016 from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) for a six-state region.

“I was really surprised and shocked to win this,” Salwey said. “I'm thankful because I wouldn't be who I am without my SVSU experience. I have been blessed to be surrounded and empowered by influential and strong leaders who have continuously pushed me to better myself.”

Among those mentors was Bryan Crainer, adviser of Forever Red.

“Kim is extraordinarily forward-thinking,” said Crainer, SVSU associate dean of student life and leadership programs. “What has made her such a dynamic student leader on our campus and such an extreme benefit to Forever Red is that she is constantly looking for ways in which the organization can improve.”

And Salwey is constantly looking for ways to improve herself. That much is evident when considering Salwey’s accomplishments during her final semester at SVSU compared to the shy and timid demeanor of her freshman year in 2012.

Salwey was raised in the small, tight-knit community of East Tawas by family members with an extensive military and law enforcement background — but no experience in higher education. As a result, she arrived at SVSU in an environment with more strangers than she was accustomed to and with little college advice.

“My goal was to get involved,” Salwey said of her freshman year. “But I didn’t know how I was going to do that.”

The first hint of what was to come arrived when a classmate living in a neighboring housing suite on campus offered to sell her a Forever Red T-shirt.

“My second semester, I became a member of Forever Red,” she said. “From there, I started going to more things and meeting new people.”

The experience also helped Salwey discover a love of philanthropy.

“I always knew about the importance of giving back,” she said. “But I didn't realize it was going to be something I was so passionate about.”

Salwey was able to channel that newfound passion into initiatives that benefited SVSU and its students. A recent accomplishment included Forever Red's contributions to I Heart SV Week, a campaign in early February that raised both scholarship money and awareness about the importance of philanthropy. The effort resulted in $27,500 raised by Forever Red and the SVSU Foundation.

Salwey said the campaign encompassed the community engagement spirit that she has grown to love as a member of Forever Red and SVSU.

“I wanted to be part of something bigger than I am,” she said. “I know I can say I was part of something bigger here at SVSU.”

May 5, 2016

Keshara Mumford: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: Detroit

High school: Chandler Park Academy

Major: social work

Future: graduate student, Michigan State University Master of Social Work program

Keshara-Mumford-ServiceKeshara Mumford remembers what it was like to search for purpose in life. The Detroit native enrolled at Saginaw Valley State University initially as a criminal justice major, but spent much of her first year unsure of the decision — and her future.

But a group of mentors on campus provided a guiding beacon, leading her to realize both a calling as a social worker and a desire to provide guidance to others searching for the right path.

“No other school will have your back like SVSU,” said Mumford, whose volunteerism and charitable nature been recognized on campus and abroad.

“They prepared me socially and academically for life ahead. There were people who saw something in me, and they put me in a position to succeed.”

That success will be recognized when Mumford earns her bachelor’s degree in social work from SVSU in May 2016. And it will continue as she pursues a master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University beginning that same month.

Eventually, she hopes to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership and eventually teach social work as a university professor.

While Mumford’s journey of success began with some uncertainties, the momentum gained since then led one of her mentors to consider her “one of the most outstanding social work majors SVSU” has graduated in years.

“She is the epitome of a service leader,” said Roberto Garcia, SVSU school improvement and transition specialist. “She has excelled in her opportunities, both on and off campus. Her volunteer work hours are above and beyond what a normal social work student would do.”

Garcia became acquainted with Mumford through his role in helping charter school graduates in their collegiate endeavors. Mumford arrived at the institution in 2011 from Chandler Park Academy, an SVSU-authorized charter school in Harper Woods near Detroit.

“She struggled a lot her first year,” Garcia remembered of Mumford’s initial uncertainty at SVSU. “Through hard work and perseverance, she has become exceptional at what she does.”

The seeds of Mumford’s niche in social work were planted in an SVSU social work class. The coursework resonated with her, and with some guidance from mentors such as Garcia, Mumford realized she wanted to explore the subject further — and beyond the classroom.

Mumford participated in a 2012 SVSU-sponsored trip that sent volunteers to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. There, she and her peers painted a youth center and renovated the home of a wheelchair-bound World War II veteran.

“To see a grown man cry and thank us for our services, I thought, ‘Wow, I want more of that,’” she said. “To express that much gratitude was amazing.”

Later, Mumford became involved in the United Way of Saginaw County’s Healthy Kids Healthy Futures Partnership AmeriCorps program. There, she worked to support and improve the lives of Saginaw youth.

“It gives me a sense of belonging and being connected to the community,” Mumford said.

The opportunity teamed her with the Boy Scouts of America’s Water and Woods Field Service Council, where she completed 900 hours of service as an outreach facilitator. Her efforts included teaching boys and girls about life skills, health and nutrition, substance abuse prevention and more.

She became involved in their lives outside of the council too, attending some of the students’ sporting events.

“After the first time I did that, one of the older boys came up to me and said, ‘I really appreciated that because no one ever came and cheered for me,’” Mumford recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is why I’m doing this.’”

She also was an intern for the State of Michigan 10th Circuit Court Family Division office in Saginaw Township, where she worked to improve the lives of teenagers in trouble because of offenses such as retail fraud and truancy. Mumford said she is proud of the number of youths who have responded to the time and attention she gave them.

“If you keep working, keep reaching out to someone, you will crack the code,” she said. “You have to build a rapport and show them that you care. It can be a challenge but also very rewarding when you reach that person.”

She likens the connection she has made with those youths to the connection her mentors made with her.

“The opportunities and the education I’ve had at SVSU helped show me how to connect to the community,” she said. “I want to show others how to connect to their communities, too.”

May 5, 2016

Emmanuel Avelino: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: Manila, Philippines

High school: Port Huron Northern

Major: biochemistry

Future: graduate student, Central Michigan University College of Medicine

Emmanuel_Avelino_HHSThe funeral invitation came from a stranger.

Emmanuel Avelino, a Saginaw Valley State University student whose aspirations to pursue a career in medicine led him to volunteer at local hospitals, became acquainted with the stranger’s brother as he battled melanoma at MidMichigan Health Hospital in Midland. The prognosis wasn’t good; chemotherapy provided the 30-something with hope for a while, but when tests showed the skin cancer spreading into the skeletal and nervous systems, it was only a matter of time.

Still, Avelino showed up regularly to provide comfort — and occasionally goods — during the patient’s months-long struggle for life. And shortly after it ended during a hot, sticky stretch of summer in July 2015, Avelino found out the bad news via an invitation to a funeral.

“To this day, it really tears me up to think how I didn’t think I really knew this person — but, really, I did,” Avelino said. “I attended the funeral, and the magnitude of how much his family knew about me was shocking.”

The experience was one of many that reinforced Avelino’s passion for medicine and belief in the human relationships forged between doctors and patients. It’s a passion that will follow the biochemistry major to the Central Michigan University College of Medicine, which he will attend after he graduates from SVSU in May 2016.

“I want to help the sick and broken in this world, and help them overcome suffering,” he said. “It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s something that would fulfill my happiness.”

That determination to help people persevere stems, in part, from his own story of perseverance.

Avelino says he was raised “very poor” in the southeastern Asian nation of the Philippines until age 5, when his mother immigrated to Flint for a job in health care. As his mother advanced her career as an anesthetist — and subsequently lifted her family into middle class social status — Avelino and his two younger brothers moved with her to communities such as Brown City, Port Huron and Imlay City, where Avelino spent most of his life.

“I’ve had a taste of different lifestyles, from living urban to rural, from poor to what I am now,” he said. “That’s really helped me better understand people.”

With his single-parent mother working, Avelino often looked after his siblings, cooking and caring for them. When his mother returned from her job at various medical facilities, Avelino would quiz her on her day — a conversation that often involved stories of her interactions with patients and doctors.

That combination of caring for his siblings and talking shop with his mother provided some of the seeds for Avelino’s pursuit of a health care career. That pursuit brought him to SVSU, where he credits faculty and advisers for exposing him to environments that reinforced his love for medicine.

“There are so many people here who helped make me into a better person overall, whether it was through being more knowledgeable in the sciences or through personal development,” he said. “It is truly a privilege to have learned the art and science of medicine from SVSU. I deeply thank SVSU for giving me that opportunity.”

One of those strong environments was the SVSU chapter of Phi Delta Epsilon, an international medical fraternity. Avelino joined early in his undergraduate life and was part of a core group of students that raised more than $26,000 over the last three years to benefit The Children’s Miracle Network at Hurley Children’s Hospital.

The fundraising coincided with Phi Delta Epsilon members volunteering to spend time with children benefiting from The Children’s Miracle Network. In November 2015, that meant meeting Rowan Neumann, a 5-year-old fighting childhood leukemia. Avelino and the fraternity set up a tour of a Saginaw fire hall and a ride in a fire truck; both were wishes fulfilled for Rowan.

Spending time with the boy, Avelino was reminded of the sense of human connection and ultimate responsibility that accompanies aiding an ailing person — whether it be a child suffering from leukemia or a man facing death.

“As I venture through the realm of medicine, I hope to never divorce the idea of the human condition from the scientific aspect of disease,” Avelino said.

“I will always be there for patients until the end. I want to change people’s lives and enrich the communities of Michigan for the better.”

May 5, 2016

Dustyn Tubbs: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: Midland

High school: Bullock Creek

Major: computer science

Future: graduate student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Master of Computer Science program

Dustyn_Tubbs_computerDustyn Tubbs is ready for the next upgrade.

The Midland native has spent much of his time at Saginaw Valley State University equipping himself with a level of knowledge and a breadth of research experience that undergraduate students eyeing a career in computer technology typically do not possess. Now Tubbs does, and his work has earned him entry into one of the nation’s top graduate schools for computer science.

“I’m very fortunate,” said Tubbs, set to begin in August 2016 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently ranked by U.S. News as one of the five best schools in the nation for graduate-level computer science programs.

“It’s a great opportunity.”

Not only is Tubbs enrolled. His résumé was so impressive that he earned a teaching assistantship that will pay his entire tuition at the institution, located between Chicago and St. Louis.

Tubbs said he might have missed the opportunity if he hadn’t attended SVSU, where he will receive his bachelor’s degree in computer science in May 2016.

“A lot of the successes had to do with having very good relationships with faculty members, who are there for you, for professional issues and personal issues,” he said.

“At SVSU, you are afforded opportunities to perform professional research, and that helped me a lot. To be able to say I had research experience as an undergraduate student makes me a unique applicant to a lot of institutions with graduate programs.”

One of those opportunities teamed him with Khandaker Rahman, SVSU assistant professor of computer science & information systems. Through a grant with the Michigan Space Grant Consortium, the pair researched facial recognition technology in smartphones.

“What really impressed me about Dustyn — and was a deciding factor in offering him the chance at research with me — was not how he was right, but how willing he was to be wrong,” Rahman said. “However rare that was for him, he always saw it as a chance to learn. I believe it was both his capacity as a student and as a curious budding scholar of computer science that helped him achieve unimaginable successes.”

The two also collaborated on research exploring movement-based authentication for smartphones. In other words, the work examined how smartphone users could unlock the device by waving it around in a certain pattern.

The work led Tubbs to present the research in August 2014 at the USENIX Security Symposium in San Diego, where international researchers, practitioners and professionals gather to discuss the latest advances in computer system security.

Tubbs also presented his studies on smartphone facial recognition technology in November 2015 at the International Conference on Multimedia Communications Services and Security. The destination that time: Kraków, Poland.

“I was one of two undergraduates at that conference, and I was able to give a presentation,” he said. “That’s not something a lot of undergrads get to do. So that was pretty swell.”

Opportunities such as these helped Tubbs secure a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant in summer 2015 to study computer science — specifically, artificial neural networks — at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It was mind-blowing,” he said of the experience. “I consider it a defining moment in terms of how I want to move forward. It was very motivating.”

The motivation, of course, led him to apply at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to continue his studies. He hopes to study the sort of machine learning and data science that is humanizing the world’s computer networks and upgrading the human experience.

“I don’t think our time should be spent doing very basic things when computers are able to do them for us,” Tubbs said.

“How many farmers have an oxen that plows fields today? They all have tractors now. Artificial intelligence is one of those tools that can help us make better use of our time. I would be happy to write a program that would allow an artist or a scholar to follow their dreams.”

In the meantime, Tubbs is grateful SVSU helped him follow his dreams.

May 5, 2016

Chi Weng: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: Shanghai, China

Major: computer information systems

Future: job searching

Chi_Weng_YenGardenChi Weng is more than adapting to the idea of wearing a red ceremonial robe during the May 2016 Saginaw Valley State University commencement ceremony.

The Shanghai native will be recognized at the event for earning a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems, but it won’t be her first go-around at SVSU’s traditional commemoration. She also was honored during the May 2013 commencement for receiving a bachelor’s in graphic design.

Back then, SVSU baccalaureate recipients wore black robes. Now students wear red robes.

“I think I like the red better,” she confessed.

The change represents a subtle shift in the world Weng is accustomed to, but it’s emblematic of a larger theme of adaptation that she experienced when enrolling at SVSU in 2008.

Weng knew little English before arriving on campus eight years ago. The language and cultural barriers made adjusting to her new surroundings difficult at first. Add to that the adjustment of leaving the most populous city in the most populous nation in the world — China — for a campus located in the much-quieter setting of the Great Lakes Bay Region.

She spent many of her first months at SVSU in her on-campus apartment as she learned from the university’s English language courses. Ironically, it was in her bedroom where she became acquainted with reruns of the hit ’90s American comedy series, Friends, which sped up her understanding of English and helped her make friends with classmates.

“I was very shy at first and I didn’t really talk to anyone,” she said. “Over time, as I learned how to communicate, I started to feel more comfortable and confident. I made many friends.”

At first, those friends were fellow Chinese international students, whom the vehicle-less Weng often carpooled with when exploring Michigan. Eventually, as her language barriers crumbled, she began befriending American classmates, too. She even bought her first car.

“You start to feel more confident and more part of the American culture,” Weng said of being an international student.

Those confidence-building and communication skills led her to seek a leadership role and in 2014, her peers elected her to serve as a representative in SVSU’s student government, the Student Association.

Weng witnessed a significant increase in the international student population during her stay at SVSU: from 400 students from abroad in 2008 to more than 700 international students this year.

“With so many, we are much more a part of the campus now,” she said. “There is so much more to learn from each other when there are more people coming here from around the world.”

While Weng said she will miss the campus, she is ready for the next chapter of her adaptation: finding a full-time job in the U.S. She plans to apply for positions that will utilize her unique blend of training in both graphic design and computer information systems.

“A lot of people know one or the other, but not both,” she said. “Now I know both.”

But first comes graduation day — this time with red robes. Another element that will be different during her second commencement ceremony: Her parents, unable to attend in 2013, plan to fly from China to see their daughter graduate.

“I’ll be happy to see them in the audience,” Weng said. “They’re coming a long way.”

As Weng admitted, she’s come a long way, too.

May 5, 2016

Ashli Maser: Portrait of a 2016 SVSU graduate

From: Au Gres

High school: Au Gres-Sims

Major: biochemistry

Future: volunteerism, dental school

AShli_Maser_phoneAsk Ashli Maser about her passions, and she will respond at first with a wide, white smile.

That smile is more than simply the Saginaw Valley State University graduating senior’s reaction to the question — it’s also the answer to it. Or at least one of the answers. After all, the Au Gres native has a number of interests that inspire her.

Among those interests are, quite literally, smiles. Ever since an orthodontist removed the braces she wore as a teenager, Maser’s career goal has been to work in a profession that deals with improving the human smile — and giving those humans more reason to smile.

“Getting braces in the eighth grade really set it off for me,” Maser said. “Dentistry and your smile affects so many things, including confidence. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to help other people in that way.”

Early on, she set her sights on becoming a dentist. Later, she thought orthodontistry might prove a better fit. Now she hopes to become an oral surgeon, a career with work ranging from scheduled wisdom tooth extraction to emergency oral reconstructive surgery following an accident.

Maser’s latest step toward her career goal is nearly complete, although she has plenty of studying and work left to do. Schooling for oral surgery, after all, is a 10-year commitment: six years of studying and four years in a residency.

Still, the biochemistry major has taken major steps toward achieving that goal. Recently, she scored high on her dental admission test — an achievement that will help her earn admission to dental school.

Another major milestone will arrive in May 2016 when she receives a bachelor’s degree from SVSU. Maser credits her university experiences with providing the essential tools, resources and experiences to help her become an oral surgeon. The institution also has provided inspiration and a platform.

For instance, Maser takes to heart SVSU’s role as both a community engaged institution as well as an advocate for promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies among K-12 students. At least on a weekly basis, Maser visits K-12 classrooms — as near as Bay County and as far north as Iosco County — promoting STEM.

“My focus is figuring out how to engage middle school students in STEM through hands-on curriculum,” she said.

That “hands-on” advocacy has included demonstrating engineering by building towers out of newsprint, to showcasing chemistry by blowing up pumpkins. Maser, a member of SVSU’s Honors Program, titled her Honors thesis “STEM Outreach in Rural Michigan Areas.”

“What brought me to SVSU was its good science program,” she said. “To give back by telling other students how much fun STEM can be has been very rewarding. It’s fun to spark their curiosity and hear what they have to say.”

Maser’s dedication to promoting higher education causes extends beyond STEM.

The first-generation college student, before her own graduation, established a scholarship supporting college-bound students from her alma mater, Au Gres-Sims High School. Maser funded the scholarship in part using tips she collected while working as a waitress between classes. My AM Dream Scholarships — the “AM” a play on words that represents both her initials and “America” — supported two students in 2014 and three students in 2015, she said.

“I’m a first-generation college student, still debt free,” she said. “If I can do that, anyone can.”

Maser also has worked with state legislators in an effort to beef up the number of guidance counselors in K-12 schools. In 2015, she spoke to members of the Michigan House of Representatives about the cause. Maser said more counselors are needed to guide youths toward successful lives after high school.

Maser’s community engagement is illuminated in part by her presence as a regional spokesperson and local celebrity. This summer, Maser will compete for the crown of Miss Michigan for the third consecutive year. She placed in the top 10 for the 34-person pageant in 2014 and 2015. She will compete this year by virtue of her role as Miss Bay County.

The winner of Miss Michigan will, in turn, compete for Miss America, a program that is one of the world’s largest providers of scholarships for women. Her chase for both crowns means Maser likely won’t attend school again until June 2017. Miss America pageant winners are not allowed to attend school while they hold the title so that they can pursue their platform interests.

Regardless of whether Maser receives either crown, she plans to spend the following year volunteering for the passion that’s captured her attention since her braces were removed. She expects to volunteer for Operation Smile, a nonprofit that helps provide safe oral surgery for children born with cleft palette.

“One thing my family has always encouraged is, whatever you are going to be in life, be a good one,” Maser said. “That’s what I’m trying to be."

May 4, 2016

First graduates of historic joint degree program set to cross stage

Saginaw Valley State University and its sister institution, Ming Chuan University, are preparing to celebrate the first graduates of the schools’ innovative joint degree program.

Four students are completing master’s degrees in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and will receive diplomas from both universities during Commencement exercises at SVSU Saturday, May 7.  Chuan Lee, president of Ming Chuan, is leading a delegation of 15 faculty from the Taiwan-based school to attend the ceremony.

Ming Chuan opened its Michigan campus through leasing space from SVSU in 2014. It is believed to be the only such collaboration in Michigan where an Asian university has a physical campus in the state. Ming Chuan also was the first Asian university to be accredited in the United States, by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“I have learned more than just the solid knowledge and skills of teaching Chinese as a second language,” said I-Hsuan Lai, who is completing the program. “I have gained the valuable experience of studying abroad. I am looking forward to using my degree in the next chapter of my life.”

Joining Lai in completing degrees are Yi-an Huang, Lifang Qiu and Jieying Shi.  

A study by the Asia Society, a group that advocates for developing cultural and linguistic understanding between the people of the U.S. and China, found that if Chinese were to be taught in U.S. schools as commonly as French (about one million students), the U.S. would need 10,000 additional teachers. (

Beginning this fall, SVSU and Ming Chuan will add a joint master’s degree program in new media and communication administration. Students can register for both programs now to begin courses in August. A one-time scholarship of $500 is available to students upon successful completion of the first semester.

Ming Chuan University has more than 140,000 alumni worldwide, four campuses in Taiwan, and one in Michigan. For more information, visit

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