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Fly your flag

Newly minted alumni display their Chippewa pride

Contact: Heather Smith


​​​​​By Terri Finch Hamilton​
​Reprinted from Centralight 2015​


Where can a CMU education take you?

Follow the flags.

Beginning in May 2014, Central Michigan University graduates started their new lives with their diploma and the gift of a full-sized maroon and gold CMU flag from President George E. Ross.

More than just a souvenir of campus, the flags are a way for alumni to display their CMU pride, wherever life leads them.

Want to fly your own flag?
Order one online from the CMU Bookstore and let your maroon-and-gold pride wave.

A year later, these flags represent some compelling stories.

One alum has taken his flag around the world as he teaches in the Middle East, letting it soar in front of the pyramids of Egypt and on a sunset beach in Thailand.

Another uses her flag as a landmark for the nonprofit she founded to help foster children find comfort and dignity by selecting clothes and toys to call their own.

A group of middle-school teachers in Florida use their flags to inspire struggling students to reach for the stars.

One flag in Chicago stands for a young man's courageous journey to be himself.

Four flag-flying alumni share how these banners symbolize their Chippewa pride – and much more. ​

Andrew Dickerson might win the prize for the best-traveled flag.

He took his CMU flag with him when he moved to the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain in August 2014 to teach high school, joining three other CMU alumni teaching there.

Actually, he took two CMU flags: the one he received at graduation and the one his parents bought him his freshman year to hang in his room.

One hangs in Dickerson’s apartment, the other in his classroom at the Modern Knowledge School, where he teaches ancient and modern history to ninth and 10th graders.

When he travels, Dickerson takes his flag and snaps a photo. He’s proudly stood in front of the pyramids of Egypt and on a sunset beach in Thailand, clutching his CMU flag.

“It shows how far a Central degree can take you,” Dickerson says. “It can take you anywhere. I’m halfway around the world with three other Chips.”

His pride is well founded, he says.

“Central’s education program is really respected,” Dickerson says. “Not just in the U.S., but around the world.”

His CMU education prepared him for the rigors of teaching, he says, from the long hours to the need to teach students in a variety of ways, to meet their different styles of learning.

CMU also prepared him for life halfway around the world, he says.

“At Central, I had friends from Asia and the Middle East and all over the world,” Dickerson says. “So I wasn’t too afraid to go to a different country. Because I had already met people from all over the world who were good, nice people.”

He teaches an American curriculum to students from Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Asia.

“I’m bringing my students the same thing they’re bringing me,” he says. “They can connect to someone from a different culture, just like I’m doing with them. They can see a real American. Not like the Americans they see when they watch ‘Jersey Shore.’ They see we’re not all crazy partiers. We’re not all right-wing or all left-wing. We’re just people. Like them.

“That’s what drew me to teaching in the first place,” he says. “The chance to connect to my students on a personal level. When they ask me about the flag, I tell them it’s where I went to school. That’s pretty cool.”

Zach Mackowiak happily hung his CMU flag in his Chicago apartment. His education at Central helped him achieve his dream of working in Chicago.

Plus, it matched his furniture.

“I’m a grown-up now,” he says with a laugh. “I have a color scheme.”

Mackowiak works on the 66th floor of a downtown Chicago skyscraper for Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm. He says other CMU alumni working there helped pave the way for him.

Mackowiak is a digital intern on Edelman’s paid media team, working on content distribution, Facebook advertising, media partnerships and social media for several large national brands.

“I’m learning something new every day,” he says. “I love seeing something about a national brand on social media and knowing I had a part in it. Or seeing an ad I placed on Google pop up.”

He’s always dreamed of working in Chicago and admits he’s now a bit of a pest about it.

“I’m so obnoxious on social media,” Mackowiak says, laughing. “I’m posting a picture every day of the view, of the sunset, of the lake. My friends say, ‘Oh no, not another picture.’”

An added bonus: his twin brother, Kyle, also a CMU alum, lives down the street as he hunts for a job in sport management.

When Mackowiak goes home to his studio apartment at the end of the day, he loves seeing his CMU flag on the wall.

“Central is where I called home for four and a half years,” he says. “I know this sounds melodramatic, but Central saved my life.

I spent my first two years there as a closeted gay man. I was depressed. But people there gave me the courage to be myself.”

Mackowiak came out the summer before his junior year. He got involved in CMU’s Office of LGBTQ Services, where he says director Shannon Jolliff supported him and taught him about social justice, diversity and inclusion.

He also could go confidently toward his new career, he says, because of what he learned from Dr. Elina Erzikova, assistant professor of public relations – “my mom away from home,” he calls her.

“I can’t say enough good things about how CMU helped me become the person I am,” he says. “I couldn’t be more proud to hang that flag in my apartment, forever.”

Holly Hansen-Watson knew she’d hang her CMU flag on the front of her Mount Pleasant house. That flag was hard won.

Hansen-Watson, 41, chipped away at her degree for 10 years, working on her entrepreneurship major two or three classes a semester while she raised her daughter, Sarah, and worked full time in campus dining.

Her plan was to one day open her own gourmet popcorn store. But things don’t always go according to plan.

One day she responded to a volunteer opportunity to drive area foster kids to Midland for classes that teach them life skills.

“I started connecting with them,” she says. “We sang along to the car radio. We talked about how their day was going.”

As she researched the needs of foster children, she discovered Foster Closet of Michigan, a nonprofit that provides clothing, toys and furniture to children in foster care. But there was no chapter in Isabella County, so Hansen-Watson started one in her garage.

Donors deliver items to her house, where volunteers sort and clean them. She hopes fundraising efforts will help her move the operation to its own location soon.

“These kids deserve to go to a real place,” she says. “Not just my garage.”

Helping youngsters in foster care is bittersweet, she says.

“It just breaks your heart to think about it. When they’re taken from their homes, they often have just minutes to gather what they can. They show up at their foster homes with whatever they were able to grab at that moment.”

When they arrive at her garage, she says, they’re still in a bit of shock.

Hansen-Watson tells the story of a teen boy who acted tough and aloof as he selected clothing. Then she saw him in the back of the car, hugging a stuffed animal he chose.

“That really tugged at my heart,” she says.

The experience has moved her so much, she and her husband, Mark Watson, became licensed as foster parents and now have three foster teens living in their home.

When she gets calls from people for directions to her house, she offers a landmark.

“I say, ‘It’s the house with the CMU flag,’” Hansen-Watson says. “I’m proud of the people at CMU. As soon as word got out about what I was doing, I had student volunteers every Sunday, right from the get-go. Everybody there comes together.”

If you’re at Immokalee Middle School in southwest Florida and you ask for the teacher with the CMU flag, you’d think the answer would be easy.

It isn’t.

Which one of the seven classrooms do you want?

That’s right – there are seven first-year teachers at Immokalee who proudly display the CMU flags they received at commencement.

They belong to Alessandra Callender, Kelly Trotter, twins Samantha and Ashley Adams, Jake Simmons, Jacob Burtch, and Ashley Simon. And more than 20 other CMU alumni teach throughout the southwest Florida school district.

The well-trained teachers from CMU are a big hit in Florida, says Callender, who teaches eighth grade pre-algebra.

One of her students was labeled as a particularly low achiever, based on a standardized test. Callender tutored the student after school and paired him with the highest achieving students in class for extra help.

“The last test he took, he got a 96 percent,” she says proudly. “I called him up to my desk to tell him the good news and he said, “Ninety-six percent? What did I miss? I thought I got a hundred.’”

She laughs.

“That was just awesome,” she says.

Callender infuses her teaching with creativity, launching algebra scavenger hunts and encouraging students to get up and walk around the room, because movement stimulates learning.

She picked up these techniques from CMU education professor Norma Bailey, who retired last summer after an award-winning career.

“I know I didn’t just get here on my own,” she says. “I’m here because of Central.”

Nearly 100 percent of her mostly Hispanic and Haitian students live in poverty and speak English as a second language, she says.

College isn’t a given for them.

“When my students ask me about my CMU flag, it always starts a conversation about college, and I love that,” Callender says. “It’s right in their face, in all of our classrooms. It will always hang in my classroom. All these kids have CMU in their heads now.”


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