Success Stories

McNair Scholar returns to Michigan

Kerri VanderHoff

Kerri VanderHoff has been known to ponder the “what if” in her life, education and profession. In fact, it has helped get her where she is today and consider the exciting possibilities of tomorrow.

The marketing and public relations director at the Grand Rapids Art Museum since 2007, VanderHoff graduated from Grand Valley in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. As a McNair Scholar, VanderHoff was able to continue her studies at the University of Chicago, where she graduated in 2007 with a master’s degree in humanities.

The McNair Scholars Program was established by members of Congress to honor Ronald E. McNair, the mission specialist who died in the 1986 USS Challenger space shuttle accident. The post-baccalaureate achievement program is designed to encourage first-generation college students with financial need, or members of a group that are traditionally underrepresented in graduate education.

VanderHoff is the first to admit that, as a non-traditional student, earning her degrees has been a rather winding journey, with many stops along the way. After receiving an associate’s degree from a community college, figuring out how to transfer and find funding to a four-year institution proved frustrating. Her parents were unfamiliar with the world of academia, and were unable to guide her in the application process.

“By the time I came to Grand Valley to finish my bachelor’s degree, I was in my mid-30s and had worked at mid-sized companies and start-ups, big studios in the entertainment industry and an international insurance company, with time off to backpack through Europe,” said VanderHoff, who was born and raised in Grand Rapids. “I had moved from Michigan to New York, to Los Angeles and back and had accumulated almost two decades of real-world experience in marketing and public relations for non-profits and the entertainment industry.”

One of the realities of returning to school full-time for VanderHoff was a very tight budget. She recalls the graciousness of Dolli Lutes, Grand Valley’s McNair Scholars program director. The scholars are matched with a doctorate-degreed faculty mentor to conduct research and attend a McNair conference to present their findings.

“When the summer of research arrived, I visited with Dolli to go over the details,” said VanderHoff. “She asked if I had a laptop computer and I said no. Without blinking she reached up on a shelf, pulled one down, took down a serial number, had me sign for it, and moved on to the next question. No pity. No assumptions. The McNair program is staffed with people who understand that intelligence, talent and drive are not equated with material possessions, and that a simple thing like lending a computer can clear an obstacle that then allows one to achieve wonderful things and make the world a better place. I am so happy that GVSU offers this program.”

VanderHoff, who graduated from Grand Valley summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA, is also grateful to her faculty mentor Toni Perrine, in the School of Communications, noting that she has a reputation for expecting good work from her students. “It made me step up to the challenge,” said VanderHoff. “The writing that I completed in the McNair program, together with several recommendations from my Grand Valley professors, including Toni, helped me get accepted to the University of Chicago – arguably one of the most intellectually challenging schools in the world. I’m truly grateful, first for her mentorship, and now her friendship.”

The two collaborated on the Michigan Film, Art & Literature Symposium which brought together scholars, artists and community leaders to identify and understand the Michigan perspective along with an awareness of how others perceive and represent it. It was presented at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in partnership with Grand Valley’s School of Communications and the Grand Rapids Public Library.

“As the re-imagining of Michigan gains momentum in the economic and political arenas, it is important to include the humanities,” said VanderHoff. “The symposium created an environment for connecting, focusing and developing the unique Michigan perspective in creative expression and for continuing the conversation beyond the two-day event.”

by Mary Isca Pirkola