Service-learning honors go to students, faculty, community groups

contact: Deanne Puca
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO--A handful of Western Michigan University faculty members, students and community organizations were recognized for their dedication and service at WMU's first Service-Learning Award Celebration April 12 on campus.

Award winners

  • Dr. Michael Millar, associate professor of Spanish
  • Dr. Timothy Palmer, professor of management
  • Dr. Edmund Tsang, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences
  • Colleen Griffin of Plainwell, Mich., a junior majoring in dance
  • Jen Nitz of Kalamazoo, a senior majoring in social work
  • Drew Wolford of San Diego, Calif., a senior majoring in practical writing
  • Building Blocks
  • Michigan Department of Transportation
  • Seeding Change-Great Lakes PeaceJam


Dr. Michael Millar was nominated by Kelly Alvarez, principal at El Sol Elementary school, for his work with the school's Spanish-speaking and English-as-a-second language students and their families. According to his nomination, Millar works to meet the needs of the El Sol community and those of his student learners with grace and diligence. He expects a great deal from his students, and he helps to support their achievement by going above and beyond in his own work. Millar also is in regular contact with the school to ensure that students' needs are being met.

Dr. Timothy Palmer was nominated by Dr. Robert Landeros, professor and chair of the Department of Management. Palmer teaches several courses with one uniting theme--social entrepreneurship and awareness of the impact business decisions have on the greater community. He creates opportunities for his students to use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to achieve social change. While business entrepreneurial ventures typically measure performance in profit and return, a social entrepreneur focuses on creating social capital. Among his many activities, Palmer partners his students with entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations to complete feasibility studies with regard to new ventures. He also takes his students on trips to visit inner-city nonprofits that work to address societal gaps, including recently taking a group of students to New Orleans. Following this trip, students were tasked with developing a plan to help facilitate recovery work in the region.

Dr. Edmund Tsang, nominated by community partner Darrell Harden, has integrated service learning into "every facet of his activities at WMU," according to Harden. Tsang is the associate dean for undergraduate programs and assessment, and is recognized internationally for expanding the scope of service learning. He approaches service learning as a partnership for the purposes of meeting community-identified needs and student learning outcomes. Going beyond teaching engineering, Tsang incorporates socioeconomic and cultural sensitivity training into his courses to better prepare his students to engage with members of diverse populations.


Colleen Griffin was nominated by Janice Maatman, director of WMU's nonprofit education programs. Griffin's service learning experience was gained from both dance and nonprofit leadership courses, during which she taught dance at the Battle Creek Public Schools after-school program where the vast majority of the students live in poverty. She learned to identify barriers to success, including transportation availability, childcare and the lack of access to the arts and other skill-building activities. Through dance, Griffin was able to help students express themselves as an outlet for their creativity. In addition to her service learning experiences, she provided hours of community service, working with the American Cancer Society Relay for Life and Family and Children's Service summer day camp.

Jen Nitz was nominated by Richard Szwaja, a part-time instructor of Holistic Health Care, and the Lee Honors College for her dedication to learning and serving others. Noted is her understanding of the difference between helping and serving to empower others. Throughout the duration of Nitz's fall service learning course with Szwaja, "she exhibited strong leadership skills and invited critiques of her performance, both from me and her fellow students," according to her instructor. She also showed strength in meeting people "where they are," and worked to articulate her learning during reflection with others in the class and encouraged other students to share her work.

Drew Wolford was nominated by Dr. Brian Gogan, assistant professor of English, for excellence in his commitment and superior work with a small nonprofit. Wolford quickly identified a community partner and "dove into the partnership with extraordinary energy and dedication," according to Gogan. Wolford's first hurdle was developing a project that met the needs of the community partner within the parameters of the class. He managed the negotiations and received approval for the project on his first attempt.

Community organizations

Building Blocks is an organization that encourages resident collaboration on various projects. The organization was nominated by Richard Szwaja, a part-time instructor of Holistic Health Care. Building Blocks is supported, in part, by students of Dr. Kim Cummings, adjunct WMU professor, and his Neighborhood Organizing Practicum. This course places college students in neighborhoods where they work with single blocks, identified by neighborhood associations because they could benefit from beautification projects. Students help identify and organize residents, who then determine what projects should be completed on their block. Together, students and residents complete these projects, including replacing broken windows, painting, laying gravel for driveways, and repairing porches, among many others. The goal for the neighborhood is to build social capital, as well as curb appeal. Students learn about neighborhood organizing, gain cultural sensitivities and practice leadership skills.

The Michigan Department of Transportation was nominated by Shawn Tenney, coordinator of the Office of Service Learning. Two years ago, the College of Engineering began partnering with MDOT on the federal Safe Routes to School program. First-year civil engineering students work closely with Darrell Harden, a transportation planner at MDOT, and a public school to identify barriers to safe passage to and from school. WMU students survey and interview school staff and administrators, neighborhood residents, parents and children, and complete a detailed walking tour of the neighborhood. The end product is a professional analysis of safety concerns and a remediation plan, presented to city, county and community stakeholders. During the first year of the partnership, Harden met numerous times with students. The second year, Harden was invited to teach one section of the course, and this fall, Darrell will be teaching two sections.

Seeding Change-Great Lakes PeaceJam was nominated by Janice Maatman, director of nonprofit education programs. Maatman's classes have worked with PeaceJam on numerous projects, as have other teaching staff on campus. PeaceJam educates young people in areas of social justice, conflict resolution and leadership skills and then teaches students to put these skills to work in their communities. During the 2010 academic year, PeaceJam hosted more than 40 service learning projects, all with excellent student and partner reviews. The organization's work has inspired WMU students interested in social justice to start their own registered student organization based on the principles that PeaceJam embraces.