On the wall in front of René Shingles' office desk hangs a framed certificate commemorating her June induction into the National Athletic Trainers' Association Hall of Fame.
The chair of Central Michigan University's School of Rehabilitation and Medical Sciences is the first African-American woman to receive the honor.
But on either side of the certificate – on her shelves and on the walls – are pictures of her students, which put together easily dwarf the award.
That is how Shingles views her academic life: Awards are significant, but her students are most important.
"I understand the shoulders that I stand on, those who helped me and provided opportunities." — René Shingles, Hall of Fame inductee
Students under her wing
One of the many students she has mentored over her decades of teaching at CMU is Jeremy Marra, a graduate of the athletic training program who now is senior associate athletic trainer at the University of Michigan athletic department.
"When I arrived at CMU, I wasn't even sure what athletic training was all about," said Marra. "I was randomly assigned René as my advisor simply based on last name.
"While she started out as my advisor, she soon became my mentor and is now a trusted colleague and friend."
It was Shingles' involvement in the Olympic Games that paved his path to serve Team USA at the 2010 and 2016 Paralympic Games and that got him involved in Special Olympics at CMU some 16 years ago.
He was back on campus this year as medical logistics coordinator at the Special Olympics Michigan State Summer Games.
Shingles saw Marra's leadership potential from the start, she said, and mentored him as he developed as an athletic trainer and as a leader, learning to delegate and to trust his colleagues.
"It's wonderful to see the Special Olympics torch get passed to him. Here's my mentee, my student who is running this, and I am just sitting back and saying, 'Wow, he's one of mine.'"
"I'm proud to follow in René's footsteps," Marra said.
Shingles' mentoring didn't stop at her department's door. Sometimes new mentees walked right into her office.
Vershaun Jones was the leading rebounder for CMU's women's basketball team in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and on her way back to her dorm from practice she would walk past Shingles' office.
Soon she began dropping in to chat, and a mentoring relationship began.
They would talk about anything, from school to sports to life in general, Shingles said.
"She became the daughter of my heart," Shingles said, and she and her husband, Stan, "became her mommy and daddy in Mount Pleasant."
Jones now travels around the world for a Detroit company and keeps in touch with frequent texts, calls and visits.
Getting shin splints and breaking barriers
Marra and Jones are just two of an estimated 600 students who have graduated under Shingles' tutelage as she made a name for herself in the world of athletic trainers. Her noted accomplishments include being the 13th African-American woman in the U.S. to become a certified athletic trainer, co-authoring the first book on cultural competence in athletic training, and holding numerous administrative posts with NATA and Special Olympics.
Perhaps all this might not have occurred in her life if it hadn't been for a case of shin splints.
She was a high school cheerleader in La Grange, North Carolina, when the pain forced her to see the school's athletic trainer. During the visit she became fascinated with all of the instruments in his little black bag and asked what each one was for.
She thought he had a cool job and asked if she could do that in addition to being a cheerleader. He said "yes" and she became the only AT student at her high school.
A football coach wrote in her senior yearbook that she was the only female ever allowed into the locker room.
"I was breaking barriers in high school," she said with a laugh.
She continued to pursue her goal through graduate school, landed AT jobs at a couple of universities and then was hired by CMU in 1992 to run the Injury Care Center in the Student Activity Center.
"The rest is history," she said. And humbling.
Standing on generations of shoulders
"I have to give credit to my mentors and the opportunities that were presented to me. I understand the shoulders that I stand on, those who helped me and provided opportunities. And it's divine intervention of being in the right place at the right time and the right moment in history.
"And now to be the shoulders for the next generation, to be an example to young professionals, particularly African-American women, who can say 'wow, if you can do that, I can do that too' that's pretty humbling."
And she is equally proud that her award is giving CMU more national recognition.
"This university has given me the support to do the things that have been recognized through this honor. That shows that CMU supports its faculty to be involved in professional organizations."
She also credits her mentors Ken Kopke and Ron Sendre, who co-founded the AT program at CMU, for having the vision to create what has lasted more than 40 years. Kopke also is a member of the Hall of Fame, as is her former student Tanya Dargusch.
Her goals now are to see the program transition from a bachelor's degree program to a master's and continued accreditation.
"I'll just keep doing the work," she said.