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April 24, 2022

Distinguished Academic Staff Awards

Rebecca Eileen Finneran

Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute
Michigan State University Extension

Rebecca Eileen Finneran’s career exemplifies what dedicated, innovative, strategic, and positive energy can produce. Her tenacious quest for reaching as many people as possible with research-based information coupled with her ability to teach in meaningful ways has been extremely effective throughout the state and beyond. Her programs have focused on horticultural production, new product development, marketing, business management, technology, pest management, labor, and farm and agriculture regulatory compliance. She developed relationships with partners from commercial horticulture businesses that became a collaborative network for delivering educational programming.

One of the finest examples of this network has been the Grand Ideas Garden, a living laboratory designed to enhance gardeners’ understanding of environmentally perceptive horticultural practices while demonstrating the best plants for West Michigan. GIG also provided a place for West Michigan MSU Extension Master Gardeners to practice their craft while educating the public. Since 1987, Finneran has trained more than 2,200 EMG volunteers and lectured to thousands of others.

Finneran regularly utilized media sources to distribute Extension education. At WOOD TV8 in 1988, she became a source for relevant gardening topics and environmental issues, which led to a regular appearance on the evening news. She wrote a weekly gardening column for the Grand Rapids Press, totaling more than 350 articles in addition to gardening articles through MSU Extension News, which added another 230 articles to her name. Between 2017 and 2019, she also provided copy and images on horticulture topics for the AP, featured in nearly 100 national outlets.

To promote sustainability and environmental protection, Finneran helped develop Smart Gardening, an initiative to promote environmental health among gardeners. Smart Gardening has produced 46 tip sheets, 13 videos, and 12 webinars for the public. She served on a national pollinator team that has led three national Protecting Pollinator Conferences, drawing entomologists, extension professionals, and landscape practitioners from around the world. She co-authored “Introduction to Protecting and Increasing Pollinators in Your Landscape”that is used nationwide.

For her development of educational materials; superb teaching; the writing of extensive, far-reaching, and informative articles on gardening; and a passion for advancing knowledge of all plant life, Rebecca Eileen Finneran is a most worthy recipient of Michigan State University’s Distinguished Academic Staff Award.

Lauren Gaines McKenzie

Dean’s Office
College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Lauren Gaines McKenzie is a dedicated, resourceful, and inspiring leader who embodies MSU’s institutional commitment to diversity in her daily work. The foundation of her leadership lies in the empathy, equality, and kindness she shows to all, which allows her to build respectful and trusting relationships. These qualities have been visible throughout her career, from her current role as director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) back through her years as an academic advisor and the coordinator of diversity and multicultural initiatives for the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

As an approachable, empathetic, and dedicated academic advisor who cares deeply about students, McKenzie’s focus has never been solely on providing the practical details of the curricular process but also on the social and emotional adjustment necessary for students to effectively connect and integrate with a supportive community.

In 2020, McKenzie launched MSU Ignite, a weeklong residential bridge program to help admitted underrepresented students start building the social and emotional networks needed to successfully navigate MSU before matriculation. The program also introduces these students to career opportunities and provides support throughout their university career.

Additionally, McKenzie’s accomplishments, while maintaining a caseload for the largestmajor and minor in the college (1600 students), were numerous. She not only assisted faculty and successfully guided advertising majors through the implementation of five curricular revisions over seven years, she also served on the provost’s ad-hoc committees for Closing the Graduation Gap (2014) and Inclusive Curriculum (2016). These accomplishments — and many more — were in addition to her regular advising of students.

McKenzie’s advocacy for historically marginalized students, her skillful collaborations on strategic projects, and her creation of DEI programs and services for students, faculty, and staff are unparalleled. As director of DEI, she has developed countless action-oriented trainings, workshops, and dialogues for faculty and staff to better support students in the classroom. She facilitates these workshops weekly; examples of past topics include “Workplace Microaggressions” and “Standing Up and Speaking Out: What to Say, When You Don’t Know What to Say.”

For her dedicated passion to undergraduate student success and unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels of the MSU community, Lauren Gaines McKenzie is most deserving of Michigan State University’s Distinguished Academic Staff Award.

Jennifer R. New

Office of Academic and Student Affairs
College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Jennifer R. New has a strong understanding of student development theory and is committed to the principle that people matter. She is known for her strong communication skills and her commitment to student success and retention.

As the associate director of the Office of Academic and Student Affairs, New truly has always struck an excellent balance in mentoring students, engaging in difficult conversations when needed but always with respect, grace, and empathy. She not only responds quickly to students’ questions and concerns but also acts as an excellent referral agent, helping connect students to important MSU services.

As the education abroad coordinator, New assists with program development and coordination, site visits, and education abroad advising. Passionate about international travel, she infuses enthusiasm for it regularly into her student conversations, helping inspire them to travel with a College of Communication Arts and Sciences’ or university program. She helps students select a course of study appropriate for their interests and find funding, working with the Office for Education Abroad to create such opportunities as the CAS Global Scholarship Initiative and the ComArtSci Planning Grant, which target first generation, underrepresented, or at-risk students.

During the pandemic, New served as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Caregiving Committee, which helped initiate changes that allowed faculty and staff to juggle the demands of their careers while balancing childcare and new family demands. This committee was also instrumental in increasing awareness of and contributions to a relief fund for students, faculty, and staff affected financially by the pandemic.

New organizes the college’s commencement ceremonies. Her attention to detail and her leadership abilities have always shone as she executed this event, but she truly tapped into creative solutions while coordinating three commencement ceremonies during COVID-19. Specifically, she organized an all-virtual commencement event led by Dean Prabu David. Knowing how disappointed graduates were that the ceremony could not be in person, she gathered video messages from faculty, engaged and recorded a student speaker, mailed honor cords, and infused the order of ceremonies with joy and positivity. The ceremony was well attended by students, parents, faculty, and staff, who were overjoyed with the event.

For her dedication to College of Communication Arts and Sciences’ students, innovative ideas, and creative solutions, Jennifer R. New is a most deserving recipient of Michigan State University's Distinguished Academic Staff Award.

Jodi M. Schulz

Children and Youth Institute
Michigan State University Extension

Jodi M. Schulz has spent the past 19 years changing lives throughout Michigan through her work in youth development and volunteer management. Her ability to collaborate with colleagues and external partners to design and implement programs is a hallmark of her career.

Schulz’s career with MSU Extension transitioned in September 2002 to the role of 4-H youth educator, where she became responsible for the growth and management of the Bay County 4-H Youth Development Program. In 2009, she moved into statewide roles providing educational expertise in youth academic success and organizational capacity building for MSU Extension. In 2018, Schulz fully transitioned to the Volunteer Excellence Support Team, where she focuses on building staff skills related to volunteer management.

Schulz is the PI on Michigan’s 4-H STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) AmeriCorps grant and has secured more than $1.7 million for MSU Extension since 2017. This grant provides funding for AmeriCorps members to serve throughout the state, providing science, technology, engineering, arts, and math programming for youth

Over the past five years, Schulz has worked on the “Heads In, Hearts In: Family Enrichment” project, writing engaging and creative activities for families that help children learn new skills during family time. She has co-authored and designed activities on topics including math, healthy living, early childhood, social-emotional health, science, literacy, and mindfulness.

Schulz has been an invited speaker at international and national conferences on topics ranging from curriculum effectiveness to building skills in youth development professionals to implementing best practices in volunteer management. She has also written and contributed to the development of curricula on these topics and others.

Schulz provides training in the SAFE (Screening Applicants for Effectiveness) program so professionals can learn to prevent child molestation. In this workshop, she skillfully discusses the uncomfortable topic of people who seek to harm children and empowers participants to spot signs of concern when screening applicants.

Schulz has a passion for changing lives through educational outreach. Her enthusiasm, knowledge, and drive make her stand out among her peers. For her successful and numerous leadership, service, teaching, and training roles throughout her career, Jodi M. Schulz is richly deserving of Michigan State University’s Distinguished Academic Staff Award.

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By: Marguerite Halversen

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