Fall 2010 Michigan Tech Magazine

One Good Turn Leads to Another

By Jennifer Donovan

The Tech Tradition of Service

“It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.” —Tom Brokaw

The timing couldn’t have been better. It was late afternoon, a crisp hint of fall in the air. As Codie Tucker walked out of the R. L. Smith Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics building, her stomach growled, reminding her that it had been a long time since lunch.

“Have a sub, and come to a Circle K meeting,” a stranger urged, holding out a tantalizing, wax paper-wrapped sandwich. “Sure, why not,” Tucker replied. She had no idea what Circle K was, but she was starving.

Three years and countless community service hours later, Tucker is president of Circle K, a service club of college students affiliated with Kiwanis International. She walks dogs at the Copper Country Humane Society, adopts highways, reads Dr. Seuss books to kids at the Portage Lake District Library, and arranges self-defense workshops. And like the Circle K’er who lured her to her first meeting with a free sandwich, she makes sure to feed her student volunteers.

“Good snacks do help,” she says with a grin. “When we adopt a highway, we have a cookout by the side of the road before we start cleaning it up.”

But free food is not Tucker’s primary motivation. “I just love volunteering,” she says. “It makes me feel so good inside.”

There is a tradition of community service among students at Michigan Tech. From Make a Difference Day to alternative spring breaks, from raking leaves for neighbors to baking bread for Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, organizations and individuals stream through the Student Activities office in the Memorial Union, looking for volunteer projects that match their academic interests and private passions. Established just three years ago, the community service program headed by Rachel Wussow has grown and hired student coordinators such as Lindsey Reeder and Briana Drake to help their peers focus their desire to do something for others.

“It’s the nature of this university,” says Dean of Students Gloria Melton. “Our students want to apply what they are learning.”

Les Cook, vice president for student affairs, agrees. “Throughout history, higher education has embraced the notion that you give back. Creativity and innovation are key elements of a Michigan Tech education, so students are always looking for new ways to put their creative and innovative ideas to work for the good of the community and the world. The principle of service learning—learning by doing—is built right into the curriculum.”

That eagerness to help others has a global slant. Despite its small size, Tech consistently places more Peace Corps volunteers overseas through its Master’s International degree programs than any other university in the country. In addition, D80—an umbrella program sheltering a dozen or more international service organizations such as Engineers Without Borders (EWB)—has been growing like wildfire since it was established just three years ago. The organization is named for the development challenges facing the 80 percent of the world’s population who are not typically considered by those creating infrastructure, goods, and services.

“To be concerned about the welfare of others is a hallmark of this generation,” says Kurt Paterson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of D80. “And Michigan Tech is just the right size: large enough to create all kinds of opportunities for students and small enough to be fairly nimble about working together across disciplines to change the world.”

Paterson has asked hundreds of D80 students why they devote so much time and effort to making the world a better place. About one-third of them offer pragmatic reasons: “I need the leadership skills and project management experience.” The rest are more idealistic. “I want to make a difference,” they say. “I feel we have an obligation to give back.”

“There is a culture of making a difference here,” says Paterson. “It’s very different from my own experience as an engineering student twenty years ago.”

Andrew Wiegand, a mechanical engineering undergraduate, explains it this way: “School often leaves me with a sense that something is missing; sure, school is fun and there is a lot one can do, but without giving back to the community, I feel like my life is not complete.”

Has a volunteering spirit always been a linchpin of life at Michigan Tech? Ellen (David) Nelson, who graduated in 1979, recalls ushering at hockey games and playing bingo with senior citizens. At first, she says, she did it because it was required by a service organization she belonged to, Alpha Phi Omega. Then she discovered that it was fun.

“I met a lot of interesting people who truly appreciated our help,” she recalls. “Community service added depth to my Michigan Tech experience.”

Since she graduated, Nelson and her husband, Dave Nelson, who also graduated from Tech in 1979, have continued giving back to their community, the mountain town of Evergreen, Colorado. They have served on the board of Team Evergreen Bicycle Club, and Ellen has been active in several community theater companies.

Growing up in a house where service was a way of life, the Nelsons’ two children followed in their parents’ footsteps. Scott, who graduated from Tech in May 2010, and Rebecca are both active in local theater. Rebecca and her mother helped found a local chapter of National Charity League and together served meals at shelters in Denver, volunteered for Special Olympics events, worked aid stations at races, and sorted clothes for a local thrift shop. They won the group’s annual Mother/Daughter Award for the most combined community service hours three times.

Adam and Melissa (Trahan) Ward of State College, Pennsylvania, came to Michigan Tech more than twenty-five years after the Nelsons, graduating in 2005 and 2006. They accumulated a similarly long list of campus community-service credits and the same lifetime commitment serving their community and the greater world. Adam helped found an Engineers Without Borders chapter at Tech, and both have remained active as mentors to new generations of EWB student volunteers at several universities.

“I have always had a desire to use my skills to help communities solve problems that they recognized but were financially or technically unable to solve,” he explains.

Both Adam and Melissa majored in civil engineering. “Suddenly the equations I had studied for four years were coming to life and enabling me to help people who really needed it,” says Melissa.

Melissa Ward’s sorority required that she do community service, though Alpha Sigma Tau mandated only four hours per semester. The majority of members were already heavily involved in service organizations, Ward pointed out. It was the University itself that fostered a climate of volunteerism, she said.

“Being involved just seemed like the norm for students at Michigan Tech. At its roots, engineering is about solving problems and helping people, so I suppose it makes sense that Michigan Tech students seek out ways to do just that.”