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Year-in-review: Alma’s Top Stories in 2019

Advances in community engagement, admissions outreach and academic discovery highlight Alma College news in 2019.

The re-opening of a 140-year-old Alma landmark, the public launch of the most ambitious fundraising effort in the college’s history, and the roll-out of test-optional admissions were among the top Alma College stories in 2019.

In October, Alma College and community leaders dedicated the restored Wright Leppien Opera House Block, originally constructed in 1879 by local civic leader Ammi Wright. The 55,000-square-foot building on the corner of Superior and State streets features commercial retail space on the property’s ground level and apartments for Alma College students on the second and third floors.

“One year ago, we stood in this space and dreamed about how the city and the college could work together to invest in Alma and enrich the lives of everyone in our community by reclaiming and restoring this amazing building,” said President Abernathy during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “That day has arrived.”

John Leppien speaks at the Opera House dedication.John Leppien speaks at the Opera House dedication.The project was funded entirely by community and college benefactors. In addition to a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, donors provided more than $6.5 million in philanthropic support.

In September, Alma College launched the “Our Time Is Now” campaign, which seeks to raise $120 million to enhance endowment, strengthen key programs and modernize facilities. Specifically, the campaign seeks $22 million to transform the current library into a dynamic new Learning Commons and $2 million to modernize and refurbish Dunning Memorial Chapel.

During the public announcement event, it was revealed that alumni and friends of the college had already committed more than $105 million during the campaign’s quiet phase.

“We are astonished by the phenomenal level of philanthropic support generated by this effort,” said Matt vandenBerg, vice president for advancement and external relations. “This is a defining moment for Alma College.”

In April, Alma College, joining a growing number of selective colleges and universities around the nation, announced it would begin test-optional admissions beginning with the 2020 incoming class. The submission of SAT or ACT test scores will be optional.

Learning Commons concept.Learning Commons concept.“Offering a test-optional pathway aligns with our admissions processes and with Alma’s identity as a small, close-knit campus community that focuses on each student as an individual,” said Amanda Slenski, vice president for admissions.

In other admissions news, the fall census in September confirmed that enrollment at Alma remains strong. The fall 2019 student headcount of 1,442 is Alma’s fourth highest enrollment, and the entering class is the most diverse in the college’s history.

Advancement initiatives earned recognition by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE District V). In June, Alma’s student-referral program received a Circle of Excellence Award from CASE. In October, Matt vandenBerg, vice president for advancement and external relations at Alma College, received the John Grenzebach Award for Outstanding Research in Philanthropy for Educational Advancement from CASE.

Extraordinary Student Achievement

Students excelled in many ways during 2019. Senior Austin Barajas was among a team of students that traveled to Ghana to install 550 computers in 25 schools. His goal: providing disadvantaged students access to reliable computers.

“Many schools in West Africa teach computer education on a chalkboard,” said Austin, one of the co-founders of the Five North Project. “The purpose of the Five North Project is to provide resources to schools so that their students can have hands-on experience with technology that will make learning about computers easier.”

Five North Project students in Ghana.Five North Project students in Ghana.Several other current and former students were recognized for outstanding achievement in 2019. Marianna Smith, a 2017 graduate, was awarded the Donald M. Payne Graduate Fellowship by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Sophia Richter, Alma’s Barlow Trophy winner, was recognized for her advocacy efforts for intercultural awareness.

The Alma College iGEM team, competing for the first time at an international synthetic biology competition, came home with a silver medal for a project that uses genetic engineering to treat heart disease.

The Model United Nations team continued its annual success, capturing the highest awards at the national conference for the 23rd straight year.

Members of the Alma College chapter of the Business Professionals of America earned medals ranking them in the top 10 in the nation in various competition categories at the BPA National Conference.

Alma students attending the Emergency Management Higher Education Symposium at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training facility in Emmitsburg, Md., received the Overall People’s Choice Award for their research presentation.

Academic Discovery, Teaching and Learning

Elizabeth Cameron, professor of business administration, received the 2019 MBAA International Distinguished Research Paper Award from the Society for the Advancement of Information Systems. Her study advocated for enhancing the skills of business students in cybersecurity.

Exercise science.Exercise science.Faculty members Deborah Dougherty and Murray Gross were appointed Charles A. Dana Professors in recognition of their consistent record of teaching, research, service and commitment to the liberal arts. Anne Porter, Stephany Slaughter, Daniel Wasserman and Kathryn Blanchard were recognized for superior teaching in the areas of English, Spanish, history and religious studies.

Jeffrey Turk, associate professor of chemistry, was awarded the Outstanding College Chemistry Teaching Award by the Midland Section of the American Chemical Society.

Thanks to grant funding, Alma College students under the direction of Alex Montoye, assistant professor of clinical exercise physiology, will prescribe fitness assessment and exercise training to more Gratiot County adults through the Mid-Michigan District Health Department’s Prescription for Health project.

Faculty researcher Amanda Harwood and her students are testing the feasibility of using activated carbon to reduce the bioavailability of DDT in contaminated soil. The research is part of a pilot study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Animal behavioral scientist Dave Clark and his students used realistic-looking animal robots in his research on the Galapagos lava lizard. In his newest study, Clark successfully employed an interactive robot that responds to the immediate actions of a live lizard.

“Base Camp,” a narrative short film directed by Anthony Collamati and assisted by Alma College new media students, was accepted by the largest genre film festival in the United States to receive its world premiere showing.

Computer scientist Scott Dexter was among a team of scholars recognized nationally for demonstrating innovation in the use of electronic/digital media for disseminating knowledge about theatre and performance.

Garlin Gilchrist IIGarlin Gilchrist IINotable Speakers

In January, Joshua DuBois, who led President Obama’s fatherhood and mentoring initiative and wrote a groundbreaking magazine cover story on “The Fight for Black Men,” delivered the keynote address for Martin Luther King Jr. Week at Alma College.

In February, retired business leader and lifelong conservationist Jerry Jung discussed the impact of U.S. agricultural policy on biodiversity. Jung, former CEO of Michigan Caterpillar and board chair of the Michigan Colleges Alliance, was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree.

In March, writer, activist and social media strategist Samhita Mukhopadyay, editor of Teen Vogue, delivered the keynote address for Women’s Month.

In April, Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II delivered the 2019 commencement address. He was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree.

Excelling in Athletics

In October, Sarah Dehring was named athletic director, replacing Steven Rackley, who resigned in June. Earlier in the year, Dehring was one of 22 senior administrators nationwide selected to participate in the NCAA Pathway Program, a yearlong leadership development initiative for senior-level athletics administrators.

The Alma College dance team won the National Dance Alliance Division III Team Performance Championship. The dance team, in existence for just three years, began performing on the sidelines during basketball games before expanding its roster and taking part in competitions. In August, three Scots were named All-Americans at the NDA College Camp.

The STUNT team finished as national runners-up in the College STUNT Championships. It was the sixth straight year Alma had made it to the STUNT Nationals — no other Division III school has made it once. Six student-athletes from the STUNT team were named All-Americans.

National champion dance team.National champion dance team.The defending national champion Alma cheer team finished in second place at the National Cheerleaders Association All-Girl Cheer Division III Championship. The Scots have finished first or second at nationals for six straight years.

In April, Ryan Clark was named the new head coach for the men’s basketball team, replacing Sam Hargraves, who resigned earlier to take the coaching reigns at Olivet College. Clark led the 2018-19 Alma women’s basketball team to a 15-12 record — the most wins in a season since 2002-03.

On the mats, juniors Brendan Ladd and Zachary Cooper earned All-American status at the NCAA Division III Championships.

Alma student-athletes devoted more than 30,000 hours to community service during the 2018-19 year — the most in Division III athletics across the nation. The Scots were recognized by Helper Helper, a national community service app that connects volunteers to meaningful experiences in the community.

In May, six former Scots were inducted into the Alma College Athletics Hall of Fame: Jim Cole, Josh Brehm, Bud Acton, Brenda Smith Jolls, Rainy Inman and Amy Wolfgang.

Story published on December 16, 2019