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CMU alumni live and make a difference around the world

Chippewas share their passions, experiences and travel tips

Contact: Heather Smith

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Reprinted from Centralight Spring 2015

Travel nearly anywhere around the globe wearing CMU gear, and you're likely to hear a cheerful, "Fire Up, Chips!"

CMU alumni are everywhere. They're designing menswear in Belgium, researching fish in New Zealand, teaching English to youngsters in Israel, and rebuilding townships and hope in South Africa.

These global alumni talk about how their time at CMU is serving them well worldwide and how their experiences in faraway places are transforming them in remarkable ways.

Their stories might just be inspiring enough to motivate you to book a lengthy flight. If you do, we've got you covered: These alums also share tourist tips for their corner of the globe. ​

​Don't forget to pack your maroon and gold.     

Ask Don Shay, ’79, what he’s doing for a living, and you better put your feet up. Maybe grab a snack.

He’s building libraries and sports complexes, creating programs for young people, finding jobs for the unemployed, training teachers, helping abused women, and building youngsters up through basketball.

“Rebuilding hope,” he says with a smile, wearing a CMU basketball T-shirt as he chats via Skype.

Don is a project manager for Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading, an innovative project to reduce crime and increase safety in the struggling townships around Cape Town.

He only planned to stay two years when he arrived in South Africa with his wife, Suellen, in 1988. He’s been there ever since.

“The ugliness of apartheid was an incredible motivator to work for change,” Don says. “Now that a peaceful democracy emerged, there is much work to do to realize the fruits of democracy – justice, education, health, employment.

“What motivates me is my understanding that I am not whole unless the society around me is whole.”

That passion started way back at Central, he says.

“CMU unlocked me,” Don says. “Walking onto the basketball team, being involved in student organizations, being a resident assistant – I learned what’s possible. I gained confidence. I discovered I could do things.”

He’s starting a nonprofit, “Sporting Skills for Life,” and he welcomes fellow CMU alumni interested in supporting the cause. He envisions cultural and athletic student exchanges between the United States and South Africa. He’s a guy with a lot of ideas.

“I get my hands in so many interesting challenges every day.”


Hungry in Cape Town? Visit Africa Cafe.

“You get 20 starters of African food from around the continent and you ask for more of what you like,” Don says. Another must-try eatery: Mzoli’s Place in Gugulethu for local barbecue, called “braaid,” cooked over an open fire and coals.

These days, Amber Kasic, ’03, M.A. ’09, is a Spanish teacher at Holland High School in West Michigan, but her students get so much more than lessons in conjugating verbs.

Amber’s time at CMU opened up the world to her, beginning with a study abroad trip. Now she broadens the world for her students, literally taking them around the globe.

“Tomorrow, we’re doing a video conference with some indigenous people in Peru,” she says, as casually as if she were talking about a pop quiz.

Amber regularly plans two-year projects with her students that culminate with service trips to Peru.

Some of her students raised $4,000 over two years to build a kitchen for hungry children. They also wrote bilingual books for kids and illustrated them.

She then took the students to that country, where they met the kids they helped. They saw their books in the library.

“It was so eye-opening for them,” she says.

That seed was planted when Amber did her first study abroad –10 weeks in Spain, in 2001, as a CMU sophomore.

“I barely spoke Spanish,” she recalls. “I was 19, and I went all by myself.” Other study abroad trips would follow – a summer in Chile, which included time in Peru. Then another summer in Spain.

“I started forming more intimate relationships with people,” Amber says. “I started to notice, ’I am these people. I’m human, they’re human.’ I realized I wanted to bring this to my students.”

She traveled last year to Ghana, teaching in a school for girls and leading workshops for their teachers.

“I’m so grateful to CMU,” Amber says. “My study abroad experiences really changed the trajectory of my life. They shaped who I am as a person, who I am as a teacher. Those programs at CMU that inspired me have ultimately impacted thousands of lives.”


Don’t miss Machu Picchu in Peru, the 15th-century marvel of mortar-free limestone architecture perched on a high plateau deep in the Amazonian jungle.

“There’s a foot path through the Andes Mountains to get there,” Amber says. “When you get to the highest peak, there are 100 vertical steps up. It’s nothing less than a spiritual experience. If you can hike up there for the sunrise, you’ll be standing in the clouds.”

Joshua Finn, ’13, was in Israel teaching English to elementary school kids when, on a whim, he taught them how to sing the Miley Cyrus hit “Party in the USA” in sign language.

In a flash, he felt like he had found his purpose.

“I was suddenly teaching them two languages,” Joshua says. “It was so cool. I realized that day, “This is what I want to do.’”

He had minored in American Sign Language at CMU. To take his interpreting skills further, he enrolled at Oakland Community College when he returned from Israel and is pursuing a degree in interpreting.

For a year starting in August 2013, Finn lived in an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea while he taught English with the Israeli Teaching Fellows program.

“Everyone needs to get out of their comfort zone and travel,” Joshua says. When he says out of his comfort zone, he means it.

He and his young students had to take cover in a shelter one day, as rockets launched by terrorists from the Gaza Strip hit near the school.

There were all kinds of adjustments.

“No one spoke English in my town,” he says. “When I went to the doctor, I had to point to my body parts that hurt. I had to really immerse myself.”

Joshua can’t wait to launch his new career.

“You have to be happy and do what you love,” he says. “Make the world a better place – not just using your degree, but using your life experiences to shape what you want to do.

“Take your experiences and do great things.”


“Go to the nearest chicken shwarma stand or get some authentic falafel. It will be the best thing you do in your day.”

Pardon Joshua while he swoons. “Oh, the hummus,” he says dreamily. “It’s addictive.”

If you visit Ashdod, a peaceful beach community, buy a kite, and fly it on the beach.

“But watch out for jellyfish. I got stung 19 times.”

When she arrived in Toulouse in the south of France, Emily Leslie, ’06, had no job and no prospects. She did have a new French husband, whom she met in the United States, so that was pretty cool.

“But I didn’t speak French or understand it,” she says.

Undaunted, she took an intense, nine-month French language course, then landed a string of internships and jobs and started learning about life in the fashion industry in a country pretty famous for it. She negotiated fabric prices with foreign companies, called trim vendors, and learned about sweater design and manufacturing.

When a headhunter from Paris contacted her, she started work as an assistant brand manager for a major European distributor of sportswear.

After earning a degree in apparel merchandising and design at CMU, Emily is living the fashion life in France. But ask her about a personal highlight and there’s no Chanel in sight.

“I learned how to ride a bike in traffic,” Emily says with a laugh.

“The first time I did it, I was so scared. These big buses pass by. People on scooters weave in and out of traffic. I thought I was going to die.”

She wouldn’t change a thing.

“Diana Vreeland once said, ’There’s only one very good life and that’s the life that you know you want and you make it for yourself,’?“ Emily says. “Take opportunities as they come along.”


Head to Nantes in the summer so you can take in “Voyage à Nantes,” a festival of pop-up restaurants, huge arts displays and activities. Follow the green line along the ground to find the fun.

Don’t miss the “Grand Elephant,” a 40-foot tall mechanical pachyderm that lumbers through town powered by hydraulic, pneumatic and gas-run cylinders. As many as 40 people can ride at a time.

When you think of Istanbul, Victoria’s Secret probably doesn’t come to mind.

But that’s where Maria Dodick, ’03, spent a few months last year, selling lacy undergarments while traditional Muslim prayers regularly blared from outdoor loudspeakers.

Maria, who earned a degree in apparel merchandising and design, has worked in retail since graduation, most recently as assistant manager at Victoria’s Secret stores in Florida.

Impressed with her creative store displays, the company asked if she would go to Istanbul to help get a new store up and running.

After a quick gulp, she said, “Sure, why not?”

“It’s a little scary for Americans, with all the things going on in bordering countries,” Maria says. But the people she met were warm and friendly, and she felt safe.

“It was my first time living in another country,” she says. “Everything was different.”

Five times a day, traditional Muslim prayers were recited over loudspeakers throughout the city.

The three-month experience was a continuation of what she learned at CMU, she says.

“At CMU, I found out who I was,” Maria says. “There were only 100 kids in my high school graduating class in Midland – white farm kids. Then I went to Central and was suddenly meeting people from different cultures and of different ethnicities. You go in blind, knowing nobody, and you start building relationships. That’s what you need in life.”


Don’t miss Instanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Encompassing 60 streets with 5,000 shops, it’s the world’s oldest flea market, opening in 1461.

Shop for stained glass lanterns, prayer beads, delectable loose-leaf tea and Turkish delight, the famous gel candy packed with chopped dates and pistachios.

Plan on several hours to shop, she says. And don’t be afraid to bargain. Walk away, and merchants will call after you with a lower price.

A word of warning about Mark Kaemingk, M.S. ’09:

if you’re out fishing and you see him approaching, he’ll probably ask you to hand over one of your fish.

Fish fascinate him. As a graduate student in conservation biology at CMU, he studied smallmouth bass while stationed at CMU’s Biological Station on Beaver Island.

Now he’s in New Zealand for two years working on a postdoctoral project, studying New Zealand’s iconic whitebait fish.

His work is painstaking and challenging. He’s studying the habits of tiny whitebait larvae after they head from freshwater out to sea.

“Sampling larvae in the ocean is much like finding a needle in a haystack or even worse,” Mark points out.

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Mark is working to figure out how far out to sea the larvae go and what happens to them while they’re out there. It involves microchemistry and stable isotope techniques and other sciencey stuff that makes a layman’s eyes glaze over.

“I realize every day how CMU prepared me for a career in science,” Mark says – much of it from “the best master of science mentor a person could ask for, Tracy Galarowicz. She gave me an excellent example of how I should treat my students and conduct science.”


While New Zealand’s South Island is more popular, don’t ignore the North Island, Mark says. There’s scenery for everybody.

“One minute we feel we’re in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the next it feels like Florida, and in some locations the plains of the Dakotas,” he says.

Mark and his wife, Amy, live in Wellington, a cosmopolitan city with a global feel and an obsession for coffee. Don’t miss the “flat white,” he says – a popular coffee Wellington boasts as the best in the country.

One last note: “If you’re a ’Lord of the Rings’ fan, this is a must-see destination,” he says, as the popular movies were filmed there.

Sergey Shishlenin, M.A. ’13, misses the rabbits at CMU. It seems Moscow doesn’t have any.

“Moscow is a busy city, and I really prefer small towns,” he says in a Skype interview from his home in Moscow. “That’s what I liked about Mount Pleasant. You might see rabbits walking around or maybe even a deer. I loved all the trees and nature. It helped me study. Here, school is going from one skyscraper to another.”

Sergey and his wife, Victoria Shishlenina, traveled together from Russia to Mount Pleasant in 2011, each to pursue a master’s degree in economics.

“We got off the bus and said, ’Where are all the people?” Victoria recalls with a smile.

Sergey works as a senior analyst and SAS developer at an information technology consulting firm in Moscow. Victoria is a marketing analyst at a pharmaceutical company.

He says he landed his good job because of his CMU education.

“A master’s degree in Moscow doesn’t give you as many communication skills as the one from CMU,” he says. “It’s just the technical information. I can communicate with people from different cultures. It’s helped me to understand people. Going to CMU changed me, made me better.”


“Drive yourself around the Golden Ring of Russia,” Sergey says.

The Golden Ring is a collection of historic Russian cities northeast of Moscow. These ancient towns are like open-air museums, featuring unique monuments of Russian architecture. You’ll see lots of those cool Russian “onion domes.”

When you’re hungry in Moscow, head for the Mumi Cafe, Sergey suggests. From just north of the Mendeleyevskaya metro you can follow the hippo footprints to this quirky place where you can eat, watch a movie and play board games.

Mike Tyle, ’09, has been waiting for a month and a half for the buttons to arrive for the new shirt he designed for C&A’s Angelo Litrico menswear collection.

Waiting for buttons: it’s one of the not-so-glamorous parts of being a fashion designer in Belgium.

Mike sketches designs, shops for trims, researches fabrics, sketches some more.

“Every month we do a new collection, so there’s always something new,” he says. “ And I love that.”

After graduation, he moved to Paris to teach English and landed an internship, then a job at a trend forecasting firm.

It was back to the United States for a two-year stint at Carhartt in Detroit before Germany lured him for a job designing at Esprit. He’s been in Belgium since December, as a designer for European fashion retailer, C&A.

“Europe is so big and so small at the same time,” Mike says. He loves that he can be in Paris, London or Amsterdam in less than two hours. He loves his quirky house key – a monster of an antique key that looks like it unlocks a bank vault.

He misses driving, Thanksgiving and lime Tostitos.

Last year, Mike traveled back to CMU as a guest lecturer for apparel merchandising and design classes. He told students about designer life in the real world and how it’s both exciting and well, waiting for your buttons to arrive.

“I’d love to go back again in five years,” he says. “I know I’ll have even more to offer.”

If you’re headed for a new life overseas and you’re anxious you won’t meet anybody, don’t worry, he says – you will. You might even see a fellow Chippewa. He ran into one of his college roommates at the Paris airport.


An accomplished photographer, (see his work on his website, Mike suggests photographing the stunning architectural details in Europe’s old cities. He has a whole collection of photos of intriguing European doors on his website.

Don’t miss the french fries in Belgium – they were invented there, Mike says, and you can buy them on just about every street. But don’t look for ketchup. In Belgium, they dip their fries in mayonnaise.

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