Alumni News Spring 2016

Show me the money

Alumna manages collection of 1 million monetary objects at Smithsonian

by Matthew Makowski

When Grand Valley alumna Hillery York walked into her living center as a first-year student, she carried a notecard on which she had diligently mapped out her life plan. This plan included using her college years to prepare herself for a career working with large animals as a veterinarian.

As many students discover, however, sometimes life doesn’t care about “their plan,” but instead opens new and exciting doors through which change of direction can happen. During her first year as a Laker, York developed an affinity for academic history through her general education courses.

 “Sure, I was captivated by the Hollywood glamor of Indiana Jones and the mysterious history of ancient Rome, but I had never seriously considered academic history as a career,” York said. “Honestly, had I not been encouraged to expand my academic horizons through prerequisite classes, I probably wouldn’t have willingly taken history classes. Instead I was laser-focused on a career I thought I wanted.”

This new interest led her down the path to graduating from Grand Valley in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in history with an archaeology minor. Fast forward four years, and York, from Walker, is the collections manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the National Numismatic Collection.

As collections manager, York is responsible for the more than 1.6 million monetary objects in the NNC’s collection, which include coins, paper money, checks, tokens and more. This means she is tasked with acquiring new objects, cataloging and classifying items, performing inventories and rehousing initiatives, preparing objects for display and tracking object movement throughout all departments within the Smithsonian.

“In my role, I am an advocate for these objects that cannot speak for themselves and am often called upon to make informed decisions regarding their care,” York said. “My job ensures these irreplaceable objects will be around for research and display for the next generation of museum professionals.”

Hillery York, 12, is pictured with a few of the more than 1 million monetary objects she oversees in the Smithsonians National Numismatic Collection.

Hillery York, ’12, is pictured with a few of the more than 1 million monetary objects she oversees in the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection.
photos courtesy of Smithsonian

York said other objects found in the geographically diverse collection range from present day polymer banknotes and 7th century Greek coins, to medals and nontraditional monetary objects, such as wampum, which are small cylindrical beads made by North American Indians from quahog shells used as money or for decoration.

One of her favorite items in the collection is a silver tetradrachm (coin) from Ephesus in Ancient Greece dating to 390 B.C. that features a bee on one side. York’s other favorite item is a little more obscure.

“We have beard tokens from the reign of Peter the Great that are really wonderful,” York said. “During this time, you would have to pay money to have a beard and you would carry the token around with you as proof.”

York attributed much of her current career placement to the support from faculty and staff members in the History Department who guided her when she chose to shift her focus to museum studies after her first year.

"I am thankful every day that I had individuals at the university who were willing to take on the extra burden of teaching me a field that is not typically offered."
— Hillery York, ’12, collections manager, Smithsonian's National Museum of American History


Coin w. bee imprinted

“I am thankful every day that I had individuals who were willing to take on the extra burden of teaching me a field that is not typically offered at Grand Valley, as well as the time and effort they spent to make my career dreams a reality,” York said.

Crown coin

 Utilizing directed research classes, internships at Michigan museums, and opportunities developing content for exhibitions at Grand Valley, York achieved a high level of professional experience in a niche field. She also broadened her knowledge by participating in the History Club and Archaeological Society, serving as president of the latter for a year.

These experiences ultimately led to her acceptance into graduate school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a master’s degree in museum studies in May 2014.

While attending graduate school, York began an internship in the NNC. In January 2014, she was offered the position of collections manager.

“I was instantly attracted to this collection because it is so diverse,” York said. “As I spent more time in the collection, I began to realize that these objects had a big story to tell and I was interested in helping to share that story.”

As collections manager, York has led many initiatives for the Smithsonian, including the completion of a massive Rapid Capture Digitization program. The program employed a conveyor belt system to digitize more than 250,000 proof sheets from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing collection in less than five months.

“The Rapid Capture Digitization project was one of my biggest accomplishments so far because we were able to gain control over a valuable collection that had been neglected since it arrived at the Institution,” York said.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing collection consists of more than a quarter-million unique sheets that were primarily used to print money from 1863 to 1930. Until their digitization, these sheets were sitting dormant and uncatalogued since arriving at the NNC between the 1960s and 1980s.

York said these artifacts are invaluable since the original engraving plates no longer exist. “Many of these issued notes were recalled and destroyed when the government took over printing federal currency for the entire country,” she said. “In some cases, the proof sheet is the only tangible evidence that the notes ever existed.”

York was also instrumental in the creation of a new exhibition on the first floor of the NMAH called “The Value of Money,” which contains more than 400 artifacts varying from a 465 B.C. Decadrachm coin from Syracuse, Sicily, to a personal check signed by President James Madison in 1813.

When working with more than 1 million historical artifacts, no project is a small task for York and her various teams, whose members change from project-to-project.

“We often have to keep focused on the end goal even though we may not be seeing the fruits of our labor as we are going,” York said. “You would be amazed at the number of people needed to make an exhibition a reality, and often people don’t always understand and appreciate the work of the people behind the scenes at museums.”

Distinguished Alumni and Outstanding Educator honored

The 2016 Distinguished Alumna is Nkechy Ezeh, associate professor of education and director of the Early Childhood Education Program at Aquinas College.

Ezeh is also CEO and founder of Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative. She now serves as ELNC's chief executive officer. Under her leadership, ELNC has created 544 quality preschool slots in the core of Grand Rapids.
She earned a bachelor's degree in language and literacy in 1992 and a master's degree in early childhood education in 1993.

Nkechy Ezeh

Nkechy Ezeh

Greg Wolffe

Greg Wolffe

The Outstanding Educator, as chosen by the Alumni Association, is Greg Wolffe, professor of computing and information systems.

Wolffe maintains a high-performance computing lab, and is focused on the big data problems that science provides. Wolffe said his true passion is mentoring students to enroll in graduate schools and eventually obtain rewarding careers.

Both Ezeh and Wolffe were honored at an awards dinner on April 29 and recognized during commencement ceremonies on April 30.

Alumni events and activities

Pioneers support Laker Navy in Florida

Members of the Grand Valley's men's and women's rowing teams received “Pioneer" support during their winter training trip to Tampa, Florida, in January.  Pioneer class members Bob Monaghan, ’67; Don, ’67, and Diane, ’67 Paton; and Bill, ’67, and Pam Wiersma graciously welcomed the teams and provided them with a post practice luncheon. Racing shells for rowing, Grand Valley's first varsity sport, were purchased in 1963, which was the first year on campus for Pioneer class members.

Rowing team in Florida

Faculty and staff alumni

Faculty and staff members who are also Grand Valley alumni met in February for an after-work celebration. Participants gathered at Trail Point Brewing Company in Allendale to network and learn about the annual Faculty and Staff Campaign.

Two women
Four people at table, Griffins game

Grand Rapids Griffins

Alumni and friends gathered at Van Andel Arena on February 26 for a Grand Rapids Griffins hockey game and to support the WestSide Collaborative. More than 150 attendees enjoyed a pre-game gathering and also donated snacks, school supplies, and cold weather gear that was later distributed to Grand Rapids west side residents in need.

College of Education alumni roundtable

Alumni from the College of Education returned to campus to take part in the COE Alumni Chapter's Resume and Cover Letter Workshop. The 45 students who participated were able to learn what different K-12 school administrators look for when reviewing applications.

Panel discussion

2016 All Alumni Golf Outing

There's still time to practice before the annual All Alumni Golf Outing, which is set for July 16 at the Meadows. Benefits from the outing will help fund the Pathway Scholarships.

Group standing

Chapters gives tips for after college

Representatives from the African American and Latin@ alumni chapters, plus staff members from the Office of Multicultural Affairs, hosted a “Life Beyond the Classroom” panel discussion for students on January 26. Panelists shared tips on how to prepare for and navigate the real world after graduation; 33 students attended.

Power of 10

The Power of 10 visits, which celebrate President Thomas J. Haas' 10 years of service at Grand Valley, have been held in Houston, Atlanta (pictured), Washington, D.C., Denver and Phoenix. Events will be held in Detroit and Grand Rapids in June to conclude the celebration.


Group photo

Future Alumni Association recognized

The Council for Support and Advancement of Education District V recognized the Future Alumni Association with its Outstanding Student Advancement Program Award for the group’s student philanthropy awareness effort, GVSU(YOU) Week.  FAA President Julie Jamison also received the Outstanding Student Leader Award.

Group of four women holding certificates

Pictured from left to right are FAA members Kelsey Keipert, Julie Jamison, Skylar Thompson and Molly Sawyer.

Page last modified June 23, 2017