CMU faculty member awarded statewide distinguished professor award

Shay Dawson named MASU Distinguished Professor of the Year

| Author: Aaron Mills | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

Shay Dawson began his college career as a business major with plans to one day take over his family’s construction company alongside his brother. But shortly into his freshman year, he realized he had no business in business.

Professional headshot of Shay Dawson, smiling against a gray/blue background while wearing a suit and blue tie.“I didn’t really enjoy my classes much,” recalls Dawson. “I was in an accounting class, and I walked out of there, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to change my major.’”

Soon after, a new career path began to come into focus when a local pastor asked if he would like to volunteer at a nearby non-profit that offers services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“And I was blown away. There were about 100 to 125 kids that lived there, all with severe and profound disabilities, and they had all these amazing programs.”

That chance encounter set him on a path that eventually led him into the field of recreational therapy and rehabilitation where, more than two decades later, the now associate professor and director of Central Michigan University’s Recreational Therapy and Rehabilitation program has been named a recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Professor of the Year award by the Michigan Association of State Universities.

Impactful partnerships

Dawson is quick to tell you that any accolades he’s received throughout his career are a testament to those around him.

“I think the secret to my success is I’ve been able to see good people and good human beings that want to make a difference…and I try to partner with those folks,” he said.

In addition to the MASU award, Dawson and his team were awarded the Marcia Carter Scholarly Manuscript of the Year award in 2023 for research on pediatric chronic pain protocol. In 2022, his RPL 101 course, Experience of Disability and Social Marginalization, garnered an Exemplary Course Program Award from Blackboard.

Since joining the CMU faculty in 2018, those partnerships have made huge impacts on campus and beyond: From co-creating the Disability Studies and Community Inclusion minor and graduate certificate, to experiential learning opportunities, to yearly study abroad opportunities for students in Serbia.

Dawson is currently partnering with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe to provide therapeutic programming, leadership and mentoring opportunities for CMU students at local K-12 schools to support some of the highest-risk students in those districts.

Shay Dawson gives a presentation in front of a group of medical students in a large room.
Shay Dawson speaks with students in the College of Medicine.

Helping others find their passion

For Dawson, being a mentor to the next generation of therapeutic professionals is one of the most important aspects of the job.

“I see every student as an opportunity to impact the world,” he said. “I feel like my calling has been to go out and to do this work and to make an impact - and I try to share that passion with them.”

That passion has translated to student success across the program. CMU students taking the National Council on Therapeutic Recreation Certification exam are passing the test at a rate of 95.7% - more than 18% higher than the national average. So, come graduation, they’re ready to put their experience into practice and continue the push for equity and inclusion for people with disabilities in their own way.

“That drives me: trying to help other people find their passion,” said Dawson. “If even one of those students ignited this passion and went out and created an amazing program, there's going to be this multiplying effect. So, if they work for 30 or 40 years and they're passionate for 30 or 40 years, think about how many clients with disabilities are going to come through those programs.”

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