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Recipients of alumni awards continue to make marks as Lakers

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Shannon Cohen smiles, a blue and green pattern in the background. Overlayed text reads: The distinguished alumni award.

Shannon Cohen ’00 & ’11


The Distinguished Alumni Award is presented to an individual who excels in their chosen profession, whose accomplishments positively impact society and reflect favorably upon themselves, their community and Grand Valley.

Shannon Cohen is a self-described “hope dealer.” 

Her passion for investing in the aspirations, ambition and wellness of people comes through in all of her work: as a business owner, author, motivational speaker, podcaster and more. 

Cohen, a first-generation college student, graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, and in 2011 with a master’s degree in public administration. As the founder and CEO of Shannon Cohen Inc., she develops customized emotional intelligence, equity and wellness trainings for organizations such as Procter & Gamble and Steelcase. Her inspirational product line, Tough Skin, Soft Heart, features greeting cards that are available at retailers nationwide, including Target and Meijer. This year she partnered with GVSU’s Alumni Supplier Diversity Program to bring her “Hope-on-the-go” products to the GVSU Laker Store. Cohen is also the founder of the global Rockstar Woman Brunch Experience, serving thousands of women annually.

In 2023, Cohen received the “Woman of Courage” award from Michigan Women Forward. In 2022, she was named “Brilliant Woman of the Year” by West Michigan Woman Magazine. Cohen serves on the board of directors for the Corewell Health Foundation, Grand Rapids Economic Club, Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at GVSU, and GROW. She also is a member of the Small Business Advisory Committee for U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten.

Nicki Bonczyk smiles in front of a black and wood background. Overlayed text reads: The Young Alumni Award

Nicki Bonczyk ’14


The Young Alumni Award is presented to a recent graduate who is making outstanding contributions to society, and whose accomplishments and career reflect favorably upon themselves, their community and Grand Valley.

Nicki Bonczyk is passionate about giving back to her community and encouraging the next generation of Laker engineers. Bonczyk is an engineering onboarding lead at JR Automation, where she oversees the onboarding and training experience for JR’s 11 North American locations. 

She graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in product design and manufacturing and began working at JR through the GVSU co-operative education program. In her role at JR, Bonczyk enjoys connecting with current GVSU students and alumni and supporting them on their engineering journeys.

Bonczyk first visited GVSU as a high school student competing in a FIRST Robotics event. FIRST is a global robotics community that prepares young people for the future through inclusive, team-based robotics programs. Since 2009, Bonczyk has volunteered with FIRST in many roles including as a coach, mentor and referee. 

Since 2019, she has served as the event and volunteer coordinator for FIRST events at GVSU, where she recruits dozens of fellow graduates to volunteer for the program. In 2017, she was a STEP Ahead Award National Honoree for Outstanding Female in the field of manufacturing. Bonczyk also volunteers with the Grand Haven Musical Fountain and the American Cancer Society by organizing Relay For Life and the West Michigan Farm to Table events.

Chris Barbee smiles in front of a gray and blue background. Overlayed text reads: The outstanding staff award

Chris Barbee ’88


The Outstanding Staff Award is presented to a Grand Valley State University staff member who has had a significant impact on the life and careers of alumni. Chris Barbee has made a significant impact on the lives of countless Lakers. 

Barbee graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting in 1988. The Monday after graduation, he started his career at West Michigan Public Broadcasting as a news and sports reporter for WGVU-AM/FM and as a producer/host of Grand Valley Sports for WGVU-WGVK-TV. 

In 1994, he took a new role as press secretary to U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers in Washington, D.C. In 2002, Barbee returned to Grand Valley to serve as the director of GVSU Alumni Relations. During two decades as director, Barbee oversaw the development of innovative alumni events and programs including, “Paving the Way for Future Generations: Stories of African Americans Who Were Firsts at Grand Valley,” which won a 2019 Circle of Excellence Award from CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

At GVSU, Barbee served as co-chair of the Dads Network and as chair of the Michigan Association of State Universities Alumni Directors Committee. In 2014, he was named “Father of the Year” by the Father’s Day Council, which honors fathers who have been able to successfully balance their careers and personal lives, while serving as role models for their children and making a positive impact in their community. In 2019, Barbee received the Presidential Appreciation Award from President Emeritus Thomas J. Haas. Barbee has served as a board member for the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan and spent 14 years volunteering at the Michigan Special Olympics State Summer Games. 

In 2021, Barbee moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to begin a new position at Levine Museum of the New South as the director of development. Barbee and his wife, Janice, have been married for 23 years. Their wedding reception was the first to be held in the GVSU Alumni House in September 2000. They are the proud parents of two daughters, Maya and Janelle.

Neal Buckwalter smiles in front of a patterned background. Overlayed text reads: The Outstanding Educator award

Neal Buckwalter


The Outstanding Educator Award is presented to a faculty member who has had a significant impact on the lives and careers of alumni.

Neal Buckwalter, associate professor of public administration, has a passion for connecting students with learning experiences and opportunities to create brighter futures for themselves, their families and their communities. Buckwalter graduated from Brigham Young University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and in 2004 with a master of public administration degree. After working in local government administration, he earned a doctoral degree in public affairs from Indiana University.

Buckwalter joined Grand Valley’s faculty in 2012. He serves as the director of the Master of Public Administration program and the faculty advisor for the GVSU International City/County Management Association student chapter, an award-winning student-run organization that connects participants to professional opportunities in local government. 

Buckwalter serves as president of the Grand Rapids Michigan Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He volunteered for five years as a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America. Buckwalter’s greatest happiness comes from spending time with his family. He and his wife, Lynnette, are the proud parents of five children.