Commencement stories: Graduates reflect on becoming Lakers

Every degree earned has a uniquely personal story behind it. Here are the reflections of four Lakers on achieving their goals. Fall Commencement is Dec. 9 .

Sophie Beechnau explored ways to communicate, from writing to voice work to the percussion section

A person wearing a cap and with a graduation gown slung over their shoulder smiles.
Sophie Beechnau will earn a degree in communication studies.
Image credit - Lauren Seymour

Before attending Grand Valley, Sophie Beechnau was a dedicated saxophone player. Yet, as a member of the Laker Marching Band, Beechnau was in the cymbal section.

Her route to that role in the marching band – as an aside, she said those marching cymbals are heavier than you might think – was characterized by an openness to trying different possibilities that also helped define and enrich her time at Grand Valley.

Beechnau, who will earn a degree in communication studies, said those varied experiences and support from faculty members have prepared her for a career that could – initially and in the future – go in multiple directions.

"One of the things I really like about communication studies is that it is a really broad field and broad major," said Beechnau, adding she is grateful for faculty members who have presented opportunities such as internships or fellowships. "A lot of my professors really want to help and want to let us know what our options are."

Beechnau explored several different majors before a speech class with Monica Johnstone, director emeritus of communications and advancement for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, sparked Beechnau's "aha" moment, leading her to pursue the communication studies degree.

Those studies were augmented by working for more than four years with University Communications. The work with colleagues performing a range of duties from writing to photography and videography to public relations has a uniting impact on the university, she said.

Beechnau said she was able to steadily take on more responsibilities, from doing research to assisting with photo shoots. And she is especially excited about an opportunity with UComm that will help her professionally: voice work done on videos and motion graphics.

"I have official material that is published that my voice is in. I can make a demo reel for future voice projects," said Beechnau, who said she has long had a goal of doing voice acting.

Another meaningful campus experience was her time in the marching band. It was a chance for Beechnau to combine her long history with band and music with a chance to form strong friendships.

And then there's the exhilaration of game day.

"There is so much anticipation, with the march down to the stadium – which was tough for me holding up two large pieces of metal for the whole duration – and then there's a break, but I was feeling like, 'I want to get on the field,'" Beechnau said. "One of the things that made LMB so worth it was recognition. People loved us."

These experiences, along with her studies in communication as well as a minor in Spanish, have allowed Beechnau to grow, become well-rounded and open for whatever is next, she said.

"As I'm getting toward the end of my college career, I'm realizing there is still so much to learn," Beechnau said.

-- By Peg West

Graduate student Sam Jacobs finds his calling in community service

A person wearing a black graduation gown and a GVSU Lakers sweatshirt wears a scarf that says "Hauenstein Center" and "Cook Leadership Academy."
Sam Jacobs will earn a master's degree in public administration.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Sam Jacobs admits when he first arrived on Grand Valley’s campus, he didn’t fully embrace all the university had to offer. 

“Looking back, I wish I would have been more involved, but I probably wouldn’t have changed anything because I’m here now,” he said. 

Since that first year though, Jacobs made the most of his time, embodying the university’s commitment to student engagement and community service. Jacobs said he found a university in Grand Valley that matched his ideals.

“As Lakers, we strive to serve others no matter what degree you are graduating with,” Jacobs said. “This university charges us to serve others with the knowledge we have gained. I truly do believe that.”

In the span of 19 months, Jacobs will have earned two degrees from Grand Valley. He obtained his bachelor’s in public administration in April 2022 and now his master’s degree in public administration on December 9. 

“Grand Valley really puts it on us to say, ‘How are you going to use your degree to give back to the community you live in?’” Jacobs said. 

“No matter what the community is: it could be your hometown, it could be the new community you move to. Grand Valley instills that idea that you have to give back and you should give back.”

When your schedule is as packed as Jacobs’ was, it’s easy to see how his time at Grand Valley raced by. 

He played the sousaphone with the Laker Marching Band as a freshman and, over his years as an undergraduate and graduate student, he was active with the Office of Student Life, the Campus Activities Board, Student Senate, the Campus Election Engagement Project, the Hauenstein Center and working at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation alongside Gleaves Whitney, the former executive director at the Hauenstein Center. 

And, he’s also finishing up his third year as a fellow in the Peter C. Cook Leadership Academy, even helping with events as a student assistant. He is everything the Cook Leadership Academy wants from its students, said Abby Sachs, the academy’s program manager.

“For Sam, the relationship between service and Grand Valley is very strong,” Sachs said.  

Jacobs credits his time in the CLA with not only molding his own leadership skills and philosophy, but also expanding his vision of what a leader can be. 

“The CLA was a great experience to get to meet community leaders,” he said. “It had a profound impact on my leadership thinking and style. I consider myself a servant leader because of the CLA. They really focus on serving others and empowering others to do their best.” 

Along with his classwork and extracurricular activities, Jacobs is also the administrative director of the nonprofit, Officium|616Service , which helps other nonprofit organizations find and connect with volunteers. 

“Sam is the ideal of what a student leader is,” Sachs said. “He has the desire to engage. He’s caught that service bug. He has seen the benefit of community engagement and very much believes in that.”

-- By Brian Vernellis

Amauri McIntosh ready for next chapter after embracing campus life, volunteerism

A person wearing a graduation robe, tie and scarf smiles in a posed photo.
Amauri McIntosh will earn a degree in occupational safety and health management.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Amauri McIntosh's schedule has kept him from attending recent events like the Black Male Scholars meetings. He does, however, plan to attend that particular December gathering.

"I want to be sure to get there," said McIntosh, who will earn a bachelor's degree in occupational safety and health management. "I want to thank them for the role they played in my experience here, for introducing me to different faculty members and for sharing resources with me."

He enjoyed the OSHM program, which is housed in the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, saying the program's size allowed for easy connections to faculty who are passionate about their field and introductions to area employers. 

McIntosh stayed in Pigeon, in Michigan's Thumb area, while he completed an environmental, health and safety internship at Huron Castings, which produces shell-molded steel castings. McIntosh said he had various roles for the company, from inspecting stormwater to tracking its toxic release inventory.

The graduate of Mona Shores High School will be the first in his family to graduate from college. McIntosh said he's ready for the workforce, in whatever form that comes his way.

"I've got applications out there," he said. "I've been to career fairs and have reached out to employers. I'm ready for something that books and classes won't teach you."

Wherever McIntosh works, he will bring a rounded resume of volunteer opportunities. He served as a teaching assistant for the Bricks for Kids program at Grand Rapids Public Schools and was a frequent volunteer at PCEC events for K-12 students.

"Recently, I helped kids build little working bugs that were powered by solar panels," he said. "When I think about giving back, I now think about tying it with OSHM and doing something about teaching safety to kids."

McIntosh arrived on Grand Valley's campus in the fall of 2019. He said he arrived with a few words of wisdom from his father.

"My pops told me to be approachable. I learned a lot about myself and about relationships that first year, and I found my way," he said. "I used to be very analytical but I find myself going with the flow right now."

-- By Michele Coffill

'You have to get out of your shell': How Grand Valley helped Mayra Sedano-Rodriguez grow

A person in a cap and gown smiles in a posed photo.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

When Mayra Sedano-Rodriguez reflects on her early days at Grand Valley, she says she never could have imagined being where – and who – she is now. 

Her family has played a significant role in her decisions. Having a cousin who attended Grand Valley influenced her decision to attend, and with two brothers who are first responders, she felt called to pursue a life of public service, hoping to create positive change as a criminal justice major.

“My brothers are all about public service, and they inspired me to also pursue that. There are so many injustices in the world, and in the criminal justice system, so I want to pursue an administrative position in my career to make a difference,” she said.

Sedano-Rodriguez has already made a difference and left her mark on campus through groups like Laker Familia, the Latino Student Union and a dance club that she started called Monarcas Ballet Folklorico. After struggling her freshman year to adapt to college life, she hopes that students like her will find their place to belong on campus. 

“I felt very isolated in my freshman year because it was the peak of COVID,” she said. “And in high school, I lacked community.”

Being on the shy, quiet side was a challenge, too, she said. “I don't always like calling attention to myself. But coming here, I found that community in these groups. It was more welcoming. There were other people like me.”

While it was worth it, it wasn’t always easy. Sedano-Rodriguez's years at Grand Valley are filled with stories of pushing her comfort zone, coming out of her shell and pursuing opportunities that she never thought she would. Her advice to current and future students to get out of your shell is a lesson she learned for herself when an opportunity arose for her to serve as president of the Latino Student Union for a semester. 

“I felt like I wasn't capable enough to be the president,” she said. “I was comfortable with being secretary (her previous role), but this was something that I had to force myself to do. That was 100% stepping out of my comfort zone. I never would have seen myself in that kind of position four years ago.”

Her academics and club participation are not the only parts of college that she will miss. Sedano-Rodriguez is a familiar face at the Grand Valley Starbucks, where she’s been a barista since her second semester on campus. She feels a deep sense of pride in her role and is one of the longest-serving student employees there. 

“People are surprised because students don’t usually work at their student jobs that long,” she said with a laugh. “I'm kind of a veteran. I always look forward to seeing my coworkers and everything.”

As for what life will look like after graduation, Sedano-Rodriguez isn’t quite sure, and she’s OK with that. As she explores future opportunities, she is relying on her laid-back life outlook just as much as her discipline and drive.

 “Funny enough, since I was young, I've been more of a go-with-the-flow type person,” she said.

-- By Sarah Dudinetz


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