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A Resource for Student Leaders Right Here at Grand Valley

by Eric-John Szczepaniak
A Resource for Student Leaders Right Here at Grand Valley

The mission of Grand Valley State University is to “educate students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies.” The Johnson Center expands what it means to be a student beyond the typical in-class undergraduates or graduates to anyone yearning to learn and committed to continual growth. The students of the Johnson Center are Lakers and community members alike who see the value in learning and modeling collaborative advancement.

When I was in my second year at GVSU, I learned about this great on-campus resource from a fellow Student Senator that interned at the Johnson Center. The Johnson Center provides many professional development opportunities free of charge to students, faculty, and staff. Suddenly I had the opportunity to learn alongside experts in the field of philanthropy across a wide swath of nonprofits. I had been serving on nonprofit boards or as an executive for boards since the age of 16. There was no way I would let this opportunity pass me by and so, as the staff will attest, I signed up for as many trainings as I could.

In one of my first sessions, I met Ellen Zwarensteyn, the Executive Director of the Michigan Center for Civic Education. As an aspiring social studies teacher myself, I clung to Ellen. After we exchanged contact information she immediately handed me a large textbook and said “read it because I need you to judge a competition in a few weeks.” Luckily, Ellen was able to fill the judging spots and I could volunteer as a timekeeper which did not require so much technical skill. After two years of volunteering with Ellen, and with the confidence of many hours of nonprofit board training, I asked Ellen about the youth on her board and came to find out that the MCCE board had long existed without giving the youth population that they served a seat at the table. I decided to change that and was appointed to the board in January of 2019. In August, by happenstance, I became the Board President and now work even more closely with Ellen toward our mission of creating vibrant civic societies.

Grand Valley State University Student Senate (2019)

Over the years I have found the Johnson Center to be an enlightening center with a focus on strengthening all communities. For the Student Senate, the Johnson Center has played an increasingly important role. I want to thank program manager Tamela Spicer who has partnered with us in our ongoing process of creating a mission, vision, and strategic framework. Due to my exposure to the Johnson Center and their ability to think intentionally and strategically, Student Senate has seen the importance of creating a strategic framework to guide future student leaders in this role. Over the summer, our Cabinet of nine student leaders attended the Nonprofit Board Certification training to gain personal skills that will help them as individuals and to begin this process of thinking strategically about how we do our work. In October, we finalized our mission and vision.

Grand Valley State University students in board service training


Student Senate will cultivate a student body that is engaged, healthy, and empowered.


Student Senate will create collaborative working relationships with any GVSU-affiliated faculty, staff, administrator, student, or student organization as well as external resources to make the Laker experience equitable, accessible, and sustainable while representing the authentic voice of the student body.

While we still have a long way to go in strengthening our lasting impact on our campus, we are indebted to the Johnson Center for their continued support. The Johnson Center has greatly impacted the organizations in which I serve and has equipped me and other student leaders with new tools to help them grow and be a voice for others in a multitude of communities. I would encourage all Lakers to utilize this resource now and learn about board service to be prepared for whatever life has in store for your future.

Eric-John Szczepaniak
Student, Grand Valley State University
Eric-John also serves on the Kenowa Hills Public Schools Board of Education.