Tell us about yourself.
My hobbies are coaching the kids’ sports teams — it’s just Riley now in soccer and futsal (indoor football). We also tent camp several times a year. Michigan has the best state parks in the nation, and we’ve done our best to visit them all. We’ve also camped in the Smoky Mountains and Florida’s panhandle.
Tell us about your business.
My dad started Szalai’s Cabinet Tops in 1983 when I was 10. I was his second employee, and he paid me $10 a day, which seemed like a lot back then. I could buy all the candy bars I could eat. I started working full time in 2000. My dad retired nine years ago and I have run the business since then.
Why did you choose Grand Valley?
I was the first Szalai to go to college. GVSU offered me a scholarship and I liked the campus when I visited. It was the simplest and best decision of my life.
How did GVSU impact your career path/future?
During my first semester, I took an American politics class with Dr. John Batchelder. I liked the class and got to know him more through conversations. He recommended me for a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. I interviewed with the Rhodes committee when I was a senior and was one of eight Michigan finalists, but was not selected to move on. It’s remarkable what the belief of one professor can do for you. I had many other Grand Valley professors who believed in me.
What is your favorite memory of GVSU?
Early morning rowing practices on the Grand River. We’d usually be on the water before sunrise. Seeing the mist rising off the water mixing with the steam rising off the rowers never got old. Most of all my best Grand Valley memories involve rowing, or more accurately, my time with my teammates.
You made a matching gift on Giving Tuesday. What prompted you to do that?
I had always intended to pay back the scholarship Grand Valley gave me 30 years ago. Ten years ago, I decided to step it up a bit. Once I started giving regularly, it became easier to ask others to give back. The next logical step was to offer a match as I knew my fellow rowing alumni would step up, too.
Why do you choose to support GVSU Rowing?
I want to do my part to ensure current and future students will always be able to have such great experiences. In 2019, two other Grand Valley rowing alumni joined me to match gifts and help fully endow the Rowing Alumni Endowment.
You also support political science at GVSU. Why?
I had great relationships with all of my professors at Grand Valley, but particularly with John Batchelder, John Constantelos and Polly Diven. I want to show them I appreciate what they did for me and will do for future students.
Why do you feel it’s important to give back to support GVSU?
As a relatively new university, Grand Valley doesn’t have the advantages of a huge endowment and alumni base compared to others. But we can build that!
What impact do you hope your gifts to GVSU have?
I hope my gifts to GVSU ensure that rowing is always a part of the Grand Valley experience for the luckiest students there, the Grand Valley rowers.