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American Dream Comes True

In 1989, my father, Zhong Chen, who was a professor in academia, was under pressure due to political turmoil in China. With the help of Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, he secured a student visa to The University of Toledo to escape the unstable fallout of his home country, where he left his wife and 4-year-old son with a hug.

My mother, Liping Gao, and I were not able to join him at the time and stayed behind in China. We did not know that it would be four years until we would see him again. That is how long it took for my mom and I to secure our visas to come to the United States.

Yixing Chen smiled during the naturalization ceremony Sept. 17 in the Law Center.

I still remember the multiple long journeys to visit the U.S. Embassy and staying in hotels night after night to wait to be granted an interview. From 1991 to 1993, my mom and I would take the train from Xian, our hometown, to Beijing, the capital. Each trip took 12 hours one way. The trip was tough on my mom, especially with an 8-year-old in tow. Each time we went, we had to wait outside in a line most of the day just hoping to get in the embassy; the weather was not always nice. We were denied visas three times before they were granted the fourth time.

I still remember the cold winter air when our plane finally landed in Detroit on New Year’s Eve in 1993 and seeing a man that resembled the memory of my father waiting for us with a hug. I still remember the drive to Toledo that night and seeing all the New Year’s fireworks as my life in America started.

My dad graduated with his Ph.D. from The University of Toledo soon after. Like most immigrants, my family had to change our visa status many times to remain in the U.S. legally. Every few years, we had to renew or reapply for different visas, hoping that it wouldn’t be denied. One denial is all it takes for us to go back to a country where we have nothing. That uncertainty of your family’s life is what most immigrants talk about when they describe the difficult, long journey to citizenship.

I grew up in the Toledo area most of my life and graduated from The University of Toledo with a dual master’s degree in public health in 2011. I work at UToledo’s Jacobs Interprofessional Immersive Simulation Center.

During my 25-year journey to citizenship, I never lost the dream of being able to hold my hand to my heart proudly when my classmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance; or when my friends sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Toledo football games; or when I hang the stars and stripes in front of my home in Toledo; or when I tell my beautiful daughter, Lilian, that her “baba” (Mandarin for daddy) is also an American like her.

To my fellow Americans: Don’t forget the journey and sacrifice of your immigrant family to get here, and never take for granted the privilege and responsibility that so many people around the world are currently fighting to obtain. It is the duty of we the people to make this country a more perfect Union.

Chen is a clinical simulation and educational research associate in the Jacobs Interprofessional Immersive Simulation Center. He was among more than 70 people who became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony Sept. 17 in the Law Center.

Women’s Basketball Team Travels to Italy for Exhibition Games, Sightseeing

Members of the women’s basketball team posed for a photo in front of the Colosseum in Rome.

Our trip to Italy was an incredible experience for our student-athletes, staff and fans.

We planned our last three foreign trips around the home countries of players on the roster. We went to Israel in 2011 for Naama Shafir, and England and Spain in 2015 for Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, Janice Monakana and Inma Zanoguera. This time we chose Italy for Mariella Santucci.

Quickly after we landed, we found ourselves navigating the waters of Venice, tasting our first pasta dish, and absorbing the Venetian culture. That evening we traveled to Bologna to find our bus greeted by the Santucci family. It was such a moving experience to see Mariella’s entire family there to see her play at our first game; many hadn’t seen her play in a very long time, if at all.

One of the highlights of our trip was spending an evening celebrating the occasion with Mariella’s parents and sister. We enjoyed a five-course, authentic Italian dinner, which left us all stuffed and energized for the days ahead. While in Bologna, we also attended a cooking class, where our players learned how to make tortellini and spaghetti. We may have a future Julia Child or two in this group.

Head Coach Tricia Cullop and Mariella Santucci smiled for the camera in front of the Colosseum in Rome.

Next, we explored the sights in Florence and collected many souvenirs before making our way to Naples by way of a high-speed train. After a quick lunch of margherita pizza, we traveled the curvy, scenic drive to Sorrento by bus. The cliffs unveiled the beautiful coast, where we would play our second game and enjoy a few days by the water.

Another highlight of the trip was taking 10-passenger boats to the island of Capri. We stopped on the back, rugged side of the island to enjoy a refreshing swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Game t
wo took place in the high hills of Sorrento and ended in a second victory for our team.

Our final stop was Rome. Despite record-high temperatures that reached 105 degrees, we attended mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and toured the Colosseum, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Vatican Museum and Trevi Fountain. We also had unbelievable opportunities to hear the pope give his Sunday blessing to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square and visit the Sistine Chapel to see the famous works of Michelangelo. In addition, our third and final exhibition game took place in Italy’s capital city against the Rome All-Stars.

In our three exhibition games, we had a chance to mix up the lineups, give our new players time to show what they can add to our team, and witness our returnees grow in their leadership roles. I was very pleased with how hard we played and how coachable they were. With only 10 practices to prepare, we threw a lot of new things at them, and they absorbed it at a very rapid pace.

In our final night, we went to an interactive opera dinner show with the entire travel party, which included 22 fans. We are so fortunate to have a tremendous fan base that supports Toledo women’s basketball. Seven out of the last eight years, we have been ranked top 30 in the country in attendance. It was fun to share this trip with some of our fans who have helped us enjoy our amazing atmosphere in Savage Arena through the years. That night, we had our final pasta dish from Italy and shared many laughs before returning back to the hotel to pack our bags for an early departure home.

To sum up the trip, we immersed ourselves in art, culture and history, as well as tasted amazing cuisine. This voyage gave our six newcomers a chance to learn our style of play, gain valuable playing experience, and bond as a team. I’ve always felt that team chemistry is the foundation of any great program. We won three games and grew closer as a team. Many of us traveled throughout Italy for the first time and gained memories that will be etched in our minds for a lifetime.

We will forever be grateful to our Rocket family for their generosity and making this trip a reality. We return home feeling very grateful, thankful and blessed.

Cullop is the head coach of the women’s basketball team — and the winningest coach in UToledo women’s basketball history with 241 victories.

Racing Internship With Hendrick Motorsports Fuels Dreams

In spring semester, I moved down to Charlotte, N.C., with the opportunity of a lifetime to work for one of the top teams in American racing, Hendrick Motorsports.

As a young person interested in cars, every Sunday I had watched their four NASCAR Cup Series race cars compete with others on tracks across the country. It is that passion that directed my educational goals to become a mechanical engineer in the hopes that I could play some role in the automotive industry. Although I had such a strong desire, I never believed that I would have the opportunity to work in professional racing, let alone a team of this pedigree.

Michael Day, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, had an internship at Hendrick Motorsports.

As you enter the Hendrick Motorsports race shops every morning, the front lobbies are lined with race and championship trophies. Hendrick Motorsports has more championships than any other team in NASCAR history, and more than 250 race wins in NASCAR’s top series. Every day this reminded me of the high expectations of cleanliness, hard work and results that are expected in order to achieve success in each race.

The group of engineers that I worked with oversaw the recording and distribution of data to each of the four race teams that compete every weekend. This information is crucial for their performance throughout the race weekend. Some of this information is gathered right before the cars leave for race weekend on a suspension rig; this was an area where I spent most of my time. It was a very surreal feeling to be wrenching on cars that would take to the track in front of millions the following weekend!

Another type of lab test we performed is on a seven-post machine, where the car was bolted down to hydraulic actuators that mimic the road and aerodynamic inputs on the vehicle throughout a lap. This allowed us to test new theories as we prepared for upcoming events.

Michael Day locked in the steering wheel of a car so vehicle measurements could be taken for an upcoming race.

However, real track testing is still the most valuable. Because of this, I was able to join the team on a two-day tire test during my internship. This exposed me to the extensive data systems that are used in the cars for testing, as well as the unique goals that were set in order to record data that we could use at that track for the race weekend.

I also was able to experience a variety of areas throughout the rest of the shop; these included building shock absorbers, post-race car teardowns, and assisting the race engineers with various reports throughout the week. Above all, I was impressed with the high work ethic and attention to detail that every employee showed day in and day out.

This was my fourth co-op at The University of Toledo, and I don’t believe that this opportunity would have become available without the experience gained and growth that took place throughout my previous internships in the automotive industry. Over the past four years, UToledo has given me the power to grow my skills and the ability to truly capture my dreams.

Day is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.

Service learning trip to Guatemala an eye-opening experience

This is my senior year at The University of Toledo, and I will graduate in May. Every year during our breaks, I have always worked as many hours as possible in order to save money for the next step of my life. However, it being senior year, I realized that I had never studied abroad and it saddened me to think that I might miss out on such an opportunity.

When I received an email in November stating the Jesup Scott Honors College was going on multiple service trips for spring break, I thought, “There’s my chance to see more of the world!” When I saw that one of my favorite, now retired, professors [Dr. Page Armstrong, former associate lecturer in the Honors College] was coming back to lead the trip to Guatemala, I was sold.

Brianna Becraft took a selfie with Lake Atitlán on her first day in Guatemala.

I’ve traveled to eight countries prior to going to Guatemala, but they were all tourist trips. I knew Guatemala would be different, that my purpose was to serve. I wasn’t expecting the large differences that greeted me.

When nine students and I first got to Guatemala, it was dark. The airport was eerily empty, and everyone was tired from flying. Leaving the airport in our packed van, I tried to soak it all in. There was barbed wire on nearly every wall of the airport and other buildings. People everywhere were walking the streets. The homes seemed to be made out of metal materials all pieced together, and motorcycles weaved wildly in and out of traffic — culture shock.

The retreat we arrived at was beautiful with its center courtyard and artistic paintings and sculptures scattered throughout. It was a building I came to truly appreciate over the course of the week as I “recovered” from the hard days’ work.

On our first day, we visited the area of Atitlán, which included a gorgeous view of Lake Atitlán, a calming boat ride, and lunch with a breathtaking view. The three-hour drive to Atitlán provided me with plenty of time to take in more sights with daylight; to say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. So many people were out walking on dirty, trash-covered streets; dogs belonging to no one ran to and from people begging for food; children followed parents or were held to their mothers by cloth wrapped around shoulders; and women carried bundles of their trinkets for sale on their heads. Dust kicked up as we drove through different villages. Roadside markets popped up every now and then, and I watched as people unloaded their products and set up their displays. I had no idea what to expect for our first day of service, so I made sure to take in everything during our trip to Atitlán.

This photo shows the river Brianna Becraft saw each time she pushed the wheelbarrow to move dirt while helping to renovate a tutoring center in Chinautla.

The service began on Monday, and I was excited to be put to work, but nervous about the conditions we might be working in. We arrived at the job site in Chinautla, and I was sad to see the way the houses were pieced together, sheets of metal screwed to one another, dirt floors that got muddy when it rained, and loose dogs, chickens, goats, kittens and cows scattered throughout the village. While it was shocking and hard for me to understand why people lived this way, coming from my place of privilege, I came to really appreciate the village and began to find beauty in it over our five days of working.

I spent a lot of time loading up wheelbarrows of dirt and gravel and moving it from its original pile to the tutoring center, which we were working to improve. I was tired early on and contemplated whether I could make it another four days. After lunch the first day, I started to take comfort in the view of the river every time I rounded the corner with yet another load of dirt. I began having conversations with the students from my trip, and I became more confident in my ability to stick it out.

This is a page from Brianna Becraft’s journal she kept during the service trip to Guatemala.

I also learned how to bend iron and tie metal to rebar in a way that created structures to solidify the tutoring center’s foundation once cement was able to be poured. My fingers hurt from pushing wires together, and my arms were burnt because I had forgotten to apply sunscreen that first day, yet I was so happy to be of service, to learn about an area of the world that I had never thought about, and to see how the people of Guatemala truly appreciated what little they had.

I learned a lot from the service in the village, but I also learned a lot from our nightly group discussions. Each night, we were presented with questions to journal about from blame and solutions, to listening and learning who we tell ourselves we are. I was able to hear different views from my peers and even continue group discussion with a few close friends each night, until we felt like we had solved some of the world’s greatest problems (although I can assure you, we did not). My journal is filled with answers to group discussion questions, self-reflections, and poems about the things I saw, heard and learned. It felt great to serve, get to know my peers, learn about myself, and be away from technology for a while.

Everyone should consider taking some form of service trip because it’s a totally immersive and creative way of learning about things that a classroom just isn’t able to provide. I can’t express how grateful I am for everything that I have here at home, and I’m also interested in continuing service work in some way as I move onto the next chapter of my life, post-graduation next month. I made lifelong friends and self-realizations that I would not have made had I stayed home for break another year and worked.

Becraft is a senior majoring in paralegal studies in the College of Health and Human Services; she also is a student in the Jesup Scott Honors College. She will graduate in May.

In search of excellence found: UT Medical Center Outpatient Rehabilitation Services

Nobody wants to hear these words: “The surgery is really, really painful, but the rehab is even worse.” And that is exactly what everyone was telling me this past spring when I had rotator cuff surgery caused by a college football injury plus a lifetime of active living.

When I came out of surgery, the doctor shared that this was the worst rotator cuff tear that he had seen during his 30 years of surgery, and he reminded me that rehab was going to be very, very challenging.

Dr. Clinton Longenecker, center, posed for a photo with Dr. Mike Travis and Deborah Rohloff.

So with this background, I walked in to the UT Medical Center Outpatient Rehabilitation Services in early summer with a certain level of apprehension and excitement to get started with my rehab to bring back the use of my right shoulder and arm.

Now as a business professor for the past 30 years who studies organizations for a living, I can state with great confidence that excellent organizations tend to be few and far between. Some of the characteristics of excellent enterprises include exceptional care and concern for clients/customers; the use of cutting-edge technology and best practices in delivering services; passionate and dedicated professionals; teamwork and a positive organizational culture; and a willingness to go the extra mile.

Well, based on my recent experience, I have to tell you that our UTMC Outpatient Rehabilitation Services is an excellent organization and demonstrates these attributes day in and day out in performing its invaluable mission of helping thousands of people heal and get healthy.

Several years ago, I had Marci Cancic-Frey, director of therapy services, as an MBA student, and I was always impressed with her passion and enthusiasm as she talked about the quality of our physical therapy services and the exceptional people that she works with. She always said, “Our people are truly dedicated to our patients in delivering exceptional PT services and helping people get well … I truly love my job.” So, needless to say, my expectations were very high going into this experience, and her organization did not disappoint.

When you walk in the door, you are warmly greeted by Sheila Burk or Lakisha Carter or Shannon Walker or Chantel Carter, and you sit in a very comfortable waiting room. The therapy staff is exceptionally punctual, and not one time in my 40 trips to therapy was my therapist ever late or running behind schedule, and they were always sensitive to my time. When your therapist approaches you to walk you back to therapy, you are always greeted with a smile and encouraging words, and their energy is contagious. Our physical therapists use a team-based approach to ensure an effective assessment, a best practices treatment plan that is known and understood by everyone (including me, the patient), and therapy sessions that are designed to help the patient learn, practice and master the necessary exercises to speed recovery. I was also very impressed with the fact that their goal is to schedule treatments in a time frame that was most convenient for me as the patient; this included thoughtful text message reminders of upcoming therapy sessions.

My therapy team included Dr. Mike Travis, physical therapist, and Deborah Rohloff, physical therapy assistant, with support from Alyssa Nino and Kayla Pickard, physical therapy assistants. Each of these professionals had a passion for their work, patient sensitivity, and a willingness to inspire me to push myself during our therapy sessions while at the same time encouraging me to do my exercise homework.

Travis shared his personal philosophy of physical therapy with me when he said, “It’s all about helping people do the things that are necessary to help them achieve good outcomes.” Rohloff shared a similar philosophy: “The best part of my job is seeing my patients achieve their goals and perform life activities that they were previously unable to perform.”

And as you look around the therapy room, you see this philosophy at every turn as our terrific UTMC therapists might be helping a high school athlete come back from a knee injury or a person with severe head trauma learn how to walk again and everything in between. These great professionals became friends as they help me in so many ways, and I’m thankful and proud to know that we are all part of this terrific institution.

I have to say that our UTMC Outpatient Rehabilitation Services, from this patient’s perspective, is simply excellent at the life-changing work that they perform every single day. A special thanks for helping me and countless others. Go UTMC Rockets!

Longenecker is a Distinguished University Professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Organizational Excellence in the College of Business and Innovation.

Reflections on China: Teaching English, touring with Yale Alley Cats, showing Rocket pride

Since October 2017, I have had the opportunity through the support of a company called Education Group Central to teach middle school students in China English as a second language online. The experience was enriching as I would often pick up the guitar and teach the students a new American song. I never thought I would have the opportunity to visit and see them face to face.

On March 10, I was invited to travel on my first visit to China in order to meet all my students whom I had been teaching on the screen. The experience was surreal. I’m sure it was the same for them. As we all met each other for the first time, we were star-struck; it was like we met someone we had only been watching in the movies.

Jeremy Holloway took a selfie with some of his students.

My classrooms were in multiple cities all over China, so I visited them all. The first stop was in Beijing, then by plane to Zhongshan. From there, I traveled by train to Guiyang, then to Xi’an, and then back to Beijing.

I had the opportunity to visit the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. I also had the opportunity to see the Terracotta Army Sculpture Museum in Xi’an. I tried everything from hot pot and Chinese burgers to Peking duck. It was phenomenal. Since some of the distances between cities was farther than a trip from New York to Orlando, Fla., I had the opportunity to experience all kinds of climates from areas with the same temperature as Toledo to areas with T-shirt weather and palm trees.

I visited the schools and taught each class one lesson, and then we had time for questions and answers. Most of the students asked me about my experience in China, what cities I visited, and how I liked the food. I felt like a celebrity as they crowded around me to ask for my autograph. A very humbling experience indeed, but we all enjoyed ourselves.

Jeremy Holloway took a selfie with the Yale Alley Cats on the Great Wall of China.

What made my experience very unique on top of visiting the students — I was placed on a tour with a group called the Yale Alley Cats. The team of undergraduate male Yale students is part of a group that started at the school in 1943. It was fascinating to spend time with these students and ask them questions about their experience applying and getting into Yale. Some of the students shared how they took the SAT and the ACT 19 times before entering, and another student said he only took the test a couple of times, but wrote a good essay. The students were extremely talented in different ways, from knowing two or three languages to their well-mannered behavior everywhere they went.

But the one thing I learned from them that was fascinating was their common decisions in choosing Yale because the university let them pursue the arts along with STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine). They shared how they felt other Ivy League schools only cared about the academics, but Yale strongly encouraged a balance of pursuing the arts like singing, dance, languages, etc., along with their academic interests. What I realized the most was the students were passionate about something they studied, and they credited that passion to why they really got accepted to Yale.

After I shared with them my joy of singing, they also graciously let me lead one of their songs during a dinner together. I sang “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys with the Yale Alley Cats.

Sporting one of his favorite UT T-shirts, Jeremy Holloway had his photo taken on the Great Wall of China.

I was proud to represent The University of Toledo with these students. I shared with one Yale student how my father worked at The University of Toledo just so I could have the opportunity to go to school, and I feel like I am living out a legacy. My story was well-received, and it felt good to form a mutual relationship with these students through my story.

Something the Yale students attribute to their success in academics is something that I believe successful UT students can also attest to. It was refreshing to hear that their success in their academics at Yale, in their opinion, is still dependent on their involvement in student activities and groups on campus. None of the students thought it a good idea to lock themselves in a room and study all day. In fact, they shared how they met their best friends in this Yale singing group and that when they feel stressed from the heavy work they have to do, the time with their Alley Cat friends melts away their stress and gives them the balance and the fortitude they need to excel in their academics.

Most importantly, I find it crucial to understand that the name of a university is only relative to the goals you want to accomplish. I want University of Toledo students to understand how our pride in our university makes us stand side by side with the best of them. I would encourage each UT student to become crystal clear about his or her goals and treat The University of Toledo as a Harvard student treats Harvard because they understand that the university never made the people, but the people always make the university. Go Rockets!

Holloway is a doctoral student in the Judith Herb College of Education. Last year, he was honored with the 20 Under 40 Leadership Award, which recognizes Toledo community members 39 or younger who demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities. The UT alumnus received a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish and a bachelor of education degree in 2005, and a master’s degree in English as a second language in 2014.

Remembering John F. Savage: Businessman, benefactor, father

Twenty-five years ago, John F. Savage passed away at age 62. This has been an emotional time for me as I reflect on his life and how much I have missed him the last quarter of a century. 

Many in the financial services industry knew John as a mesmerizing speaker whose memorable quips and concise financial lessons inspired thousands. Locally, John was known for founding and building — along with his brother, Bob — a successful, independent and diversified financial services firm, Savage & Associates. 

John and Mary Kay Savage smiled at the 1988 press conference when it was announced Centennial Hall would be renamed John F. Savage Hall. A 1952 UT alumnus, Savage was co-chair of a campaign that raised $10 million for the facility, which later adopted the name John F. Savage Arena. The longtime University benefactor was a past president of the UT Alumni Association and a former member of the UT Foundation Board of Trustees. He received an honorary doctorate from the University in 1985.

He is known equally or more in northwest Ohio from the countless known (and many unknown) philanthropic efforts, primarily fundraising in service of the poor, the Catholic Church and The University of Toledo.

Me, along with my eight siblings, knew John Savage as dad, and I am sharing from that perspective. The story I will share about John Savage is not known by many and will truly put in perspective how his success was so improbable. It is truly an “only in America” story.

My father grew up in what, at best, could be described as a working-class neighborhood in Toledo with his eight siblings in a small home. His mom died when he was 7 leaving his father to raise nine children while owning a small corner grocery store, Savage Market. Out of necessity, all nine worked in the grocery store. This scenario does not seem like the right recipe to produce a man who would later be inducted into the City of Toledo Hall of Fame for his philanthropic and business achievements, but it did. His family instilled a work ethic, values, and a burning desire to do better.

He and all eight siblings remarkably graduated from college, and he began an entrepreneurial career in his 20s. 

John Savage and his son, Sean, 18, posed for a photo during a trip to Alaska in 1989.

By the time I came along as the eighth child of my parents, the business was growing, and his community work was well-known. 

How did John Savage go from growing up poor and without a mom to advising CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, raising millions of dollars for charity, and, with my mom, building a strong family?

From my view, there are a few key ingredients:

• Positive energy. My dad exuded confidence and positive energy to everyone he encountered. People loved being around my dad because they felt better about themselves and what they could accomplish. He was on his death bed and still positive and thankful.

• Work ethic. He was a relentless worker and was driven to do well in all endeavors. He rose early and worked late. He poured everything he had in every day. He instilled a work ethic in us children that, for me, has lasted a lifetime. Even when my parents were able to give us things, they took the better and less traveled route of “teaching us how to fish instead of giving us a fish.”

• Values. My dad did the right thing. He was principled and led by example. His commitment to high standards in business and in his personal life was a tremendous example to me and my siblings. What a blessing for a child to witness in their parents.

• Guts. He started with nothing and so his view was that he was risking nothing by taking chances in life. He was fearless in asking for business and raising money for causes.

• Loyal. Even after becoming a household name in Toledo and the industry, he never forgot his roots. He remained a loyal friend to the guys from the old neighborhood and was forever grateful to The University of Toledo for allowing him to be educated on a nothing budget.

• Humble. After all the success and accolades, he remained grounded. He made sure all his children understood what it took to do well in life, and once you do well to not change.

• Balance. My dad believed in a life-work balance, which involved a focus on family, spirituality, work, physical well-being, and doing acts of charity. He was far from perfect, but he did a good job in each of these areas.

Twenty-five years ago, I was just out of college and about 120 days from getting married. My dad’s death shook me at my core, but I turned to the valuable life lessons I was so fortunate to have been taught by my parents. 

Today, my wife, Carolyn, and I feel so blessed with our six children, and I feel particularly blessed to walk into an office each day my dad walked into for so many years. 

Looking back, I am still amazed at how far my father came in his life, and the good fortune I had to be under the same roof with him for 22 years. God speed, dad!

Sean Savage is a financial adviser at Savage & Associates in Toledo.

Making a difference: Spring break in Guatemala

For college students, spring break is generally a time to party, hang out with friends, or catch up on sleep. However, these typical activities did not entice me: I wanted to do something bigger and more meaningful.

During my junior year, I studied abroad in Ghana and realized my love for traveling as well as helping others. While there, I worked at a small non-government organization called the Mawulolo Youth Network, an after-school program, where I taught first- and second-graders math and English.

UT students posed for a photo outside the library they painted in a small mountain village in Guatemala. They are, from left standing, Megh Kumar; Carlee Vaughn; and Manuel Martinez, a guide from International Samaritan, the organization that assisted with the trip; and, seated from left, Seth Hasler; Sarah Jaggernauth; Dr. Ashley Pryor, associate professor in the Jesup Scott Honors College; Ashley Diel; Allison Grim; and Elizabeth Russell.

I quickly began to see how different other countries were from the United States, especially in the case of education, or rather the lack of its availability to children in other parts of the world.

Since then, I have made it my personal mission to travel to places others in the United States generally do not go to such as throughout Africa and the Middle East to see how others live as well as to learn about the accessibility to education.

With this mindset, I knew I wanted to make my senior year spring break memorable by continuing working in a community in another country to help lessen the gap between education and accessibility.

Last year for spring break, I traveled to Nicaragua with the Jesup Scott Honors College and worked in a school helping to build a library. I saw it only fitting that I travel with the college again this year, but this time to Guatemala.

Ashley Diel took this photo in Guatemala from Cerro de la Cruz looking over the city of Antigua with Agua Volcano in the background. 

There were seven honors students going on the trip. I was fortunate to know a few of them who had gone to Nicaragua with me last year, but by the end of the trip, all of us had become good friends.

For our first day in Guatemala, we traveled around the city of San Juan, as well as Antigua. This was meant to show us the country and let us learn a little about its culture. We learned about the importance of jade in Guatemala dating back to the times of the Mayans, as well as traveled to see an active volcano. The country was beautiful, and the views were breath-taking.

However, we were not there to vacation. We were there to work.

For the rest of the week, we spent time in a small community in the mountains. Getting there was an adventure as we had to drive down winding hills that made it feel like we were at Cedar Point.

We had two main projects that we worked on in the community. We painted the inside and outside of a small library for the children, and we started building the foundation of a house for a local family. While I have painted many times, I cannot say that I have ever had to do construction, and it gave me a new appreciation for the people who do it for a living.

The group of us dug trenches with pick axes for days as the community did not have access to machinery to do the digging. Many of us quickly formed blisters, but we kept at it knowing that a little bit of pain on our behalf was worth it if we were able to help the people there.

As we worked, some of the local children would come up to us, interested in what we were doing. Unfortunately, my Spanish is not very good, so I was unable to communicate with them, but several other students on the trip were fluent and spoke with the kids.

It was amazing to see my fellow UT students interacting with the kids and connecting with some of the adults in the community. Since the kids did not know English, one of the students in my group wrote down a bunch of words for them so that they could begin learning.

As the week came to a close, I could see just how much we had accomplished. It was amazing to see how much we had painted, but even more impressive was how much of the foundation for the house we had finished. In one week, we went from not having broken ground to trenches that were several feet deep and beginning to lay the cinder blocks for the walls.

While we all had a great time in Guatemala working and experiencing the culture, it was even more rewarding knowing we had made at least a little difference in the lives of those who live there.

I believe I can speak for everyone who went on the trip and say we all felt a sense of pride in what we had been able to accomplish. I am sure we all wished we could stay longer than a week, especially so that we could see the house being built through the end.

Saying goodbye to Guatemala was hard, as it always is with any country that I visit. However, I know that it will not be my last time traveling or volunteering abroad. There are still so many new and exciting opportunities out there, and I plan to keep going everywhere I can and trying to make a difference.

Diel is a senior majoring in communication and a student in the Jesup Scott Honors College. She will graduate in May.

UT seeks Toledoans’ planetarium memories to celebrate 50th anniversary of astronomy program

I teach astronomy at The University of Toledo, and I’m known as “Prof. B.” My job is part technical and part inspirational. The excitement of the recent, historic solar eclipse touched hearts and sparked the imaginations of generations of families across the country who crowded streets to witness something powerful in the universe.

Here at UT’s Ritter Planetarium and Brooks Observatory, we also are planning to celebrate a major milestone and are in need of the public’s help to share our rich history of education, outreach and celestial exploration. Friday, Oct. 13, will mark the 50th anniversary of the University’s astronomy program, Ritter Planetarium and Brooks Observatory. We’re in search of your stories and memories to better tell our story.

Ritter Planetarium and Brooks Observatory will celebrate their 50th anniversary Friday, Oct. 13.

As a child, my first visit to a planetarium involved marveling at one of the old “star ball” projectors, but since then I have enjoyed being transported to black holes and other worlds with increasingly beautiful full-dome movies. These visits certainly had an impact on me, for I went on to earn my doctorate in astronomy.

The Ritter Planetarium and Brooks Observatory are woven into the tapestry of this region. What do you remember from your visit?

In the 1920s, astronomy courses were offered through the Math Department at UT, so Professor Helen Brooks would bring students to her house to look through her personal telescope.

The Ritter facility was dedicated Oct. 13, 1967, with Brooks as the first planetarium director. The Brooks Observatory located in the dome on top of McMaster Hall was later named in honor of Brooks and her late husband, Elgin. The 1-meter-diameter telescope housed on top of the Ritter building is the largest optical telescope in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

The Ritter facility was deliberately planned to blend research and public education for the University, local schools and the community. One of the joys of astronomy is that people are inherently curious about it, and so sharing our research and our telescopes with the community have been vital in our mission from the beginning.

Helen Brooks died in 2011, two years before I came to Toledo. I never had the chance to meet her, but some of you did. I would like to learn more about your experiences. Did you attend any of the special events, such as for Apollo 11 and the impact of the Shoemaker-Levy Comet on Jupiter? Have you taken your family to experience programs in the planetarium or public viewings with telescopes in the observatories?

Additionally, with your permission, I would like to share your stories through a poster presentation at the Astronomy Open House at Ritter Planetarium Thursday, Oct. 26, to show the strong connection this community has for astronomy.

Please send your stories to me via email at  jillian.bornak@utoledo.edu or mail a letter to The University of Toledo Department of Physics and Astronomy at Mail Stop 111, 2801 W. Bancroft St., Toledo, OH 43606.

I look forward to reading your stories. Keep looking up!

Bornak is an associate lecturer in the Physics and Astronomy Department and chair of the UT Astronomy 50th Anniversary Committee. 

Class of a lifetime: Studying coral reef ecosystem in the Bahamas

Last month, our Ecology Field Study class traveled to the Bahamas to examine coral reef ecosystems. There were nine excited students on the learning excursion led by Dr. Tom Bridgeman, professor of environmental sciences, and Dr. John Turner, professor of physiology and pharmacology.

Coconut palms and tropical Abaco pines resembling Dr. Seuss’ truffula trees filled the gaps between the three houses rented for our research team. The cottage I stayed in is everything one might imagine a beach house should be. Conch shells line the sandy path toward the blue water. The beach sits not even 20 feet from the house and stretches for miles in both directions. The soft white sand is finer than any Floridian beach I have ever been to, and there are no other people in sight. The crystal blue water is mesmerizing.

Students in the Ecology Field Study class posed for a photo on the beach on Great Abaco Island. They are, from left, Matthew Bender, Sarah Carter, Wendy Stevens, Bianca Caniglia, Jordan Penkava, Jessica Duez, Katie Condon and Brittany Layden. Dr. Rick Francis, director of research advancement and information systems, also a member of the class, shot photos and video during the trip.

For our first snorkel, Dr. Turner took us to a private beach access point called Mermaid Reef. The water was warm (78 degrees maybe) and does not require the use of wet suits or weights. Mermaid Reef is a calm, clear location ripe with parrotfish (of various species), queen angelfish, and swarms of sergeant majors. We saw a few spiny lobsters hiding beneath the smaller reef shelves. If it weren’t for their long antennae protruding from the rock, we might not have even noticed they were there. Blue tangs (Dory fish), schools of yellowtail snappers, and a few shy squirrel fish swam to try to hide from us along the reef sides. After a few hours, everyone was hungry, and we left the site to stock up on groceries, make lunch, and recharge.

After lunch, we head out to a patch reef just beyond the beachfront cottages we’re staying in. Most of the students swam out in a small school. Some of us paddled out on a small zodiac boat a few hundred yards out into the blue. I am nervous. I don’t like to admit that I am afraid of anything, but I am eager to see my first reef shark, so I scan the horizon looking for any gray triangles breaking the surface. I’ve been fascinated and fearful of sharks for the better part of two decades. However, I know that I have greater odds of dying by a cow tipping over on me or possibly getting struck by lightning. Despite my fears, I plunge into the ocean with the others.

A hawksbill sea turtle hiding on the patch reef was spotted on the first day of the trip.

Enormous purple sea fans, rusty-orange sponges, and sea kelp cover the live rock. The top of the reef is only a foot or two below the surface, and I find myself being pushed and pulled gently by the waves. I am trying — and failing — not to go directly atop the reef. Meanwhile, my fins are killing the tops of my feet. I swim toward the others so I don’t feel exposed or alone. After about 10 minutes, the paranoia subsides. I calmly start to visually scan every nook and cranny I see. There are so many things moving in and out of the little coral reef niches that I have a hard time focusing on any single fan or fish.

Then I see it! A mottled oval with two eyes, but I am unsure. I intently stare at the reef until the outline of a shell and flippers emerge from its camouflage. I burst toward the surface and shout “Sea turtle!” It wasn’t actively swimming, just sitting there patiently waiting for us to leave, I imagine. It wasn’t unusually large or small, but it is hard to gauge size and distance underwater. That hawksbill sea turtle made the first day of our trip very special.

Students snorkeled at Mermaid Reef.

After a late dinner, the whole team gathered to record all the species of fish that we could confirm we saw throughout the day. I think there were close to 20 different fish recorded. We projected some of Dr. Rick Francis’ pictures onto a large white sheet for all to see.

On the second day, Dr. Turner and Dr. Bridgeman coordinated an exciting boat day. We had to organize our gear and leave early in the morning to meet our captain and guide. Tim is an islander whose family originally settled on Great Abaco Island back in the 1600s. He told me he was a professional fisherman who fishes for mahi mahi (dolphin fish), red snapper and spiny lobsters. However, that day he was taking us to some special reef sites: Snake Key, a national Abaco-protected marine reserve, as well as an open-ocean drop with gorgeous reef wall. We boarded around 9 a.m. and motored out a few miles away to the first location, a historical shipping channel.

The shipping channel, otherwise known as Snake Key, has a fast current. The plan was for Tim to drop us off far upstream and allow us to drift to a pickup site farther downstream. The channel wall had some nice corals and a few spiny lobsters, but the quick current made it challenging to photograph. Tim picked us up and then drove us back upstream to do it again. There were some large rays that were seen from the boat — a few outlines and shadows moving under the surface and away from the boat.

Dr. Tom Bridgeman examined a live conch with, from left, daughter Mirabel Bridgeman and students Jordan Penkava, Matthew Bender and Katie Condon.

After that, we trolled along the waters of the key. There were small mangrove islands and many rocky, seemingly uninhabited mini-tree isles all around us. The water was crystal clear and shallow. I saw cushion sea stars (starfish) from the boat and sea turtle shadows darting away from our path. We stopped the boat atop a blue hole, where the shallows disappeared and a deep dark hole (which I chose to avoid) was located. Rick launched his remote-controlled camera drone to get aerial footage of our snorkeling. I think most of us were betting on spotting sea turtles, but instead I mostly saw only sea cucumbers.

Once all the students were back on board, we headed out into the blue toward the protected marine preserve. As we navigated toward the site, I became awestruck with how the ocean changed color. Growing up and around Lake Erie for most my life, I have never seen so many shades of blue in a single body of water. It turns from teal to clear, then aquamarine to a deep blue and then back to teal again; it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Dr. Rick Francis took an aerial shot by quadcopter of the patch reef.

As we approached the Pelican Cay marina park, I noticed a couple other boats had snorkelers in the water. Dr. Turner told us where to head once we were in the water. He prefaced our swim with descriptions of large elkhorn and staghorn corals, and Tim reassured us that if we were in any distress to wave to him and he would bring the boat to pick us up. Here the water was nearly true blue, and I definitely could not see the bottom.

When I finally got my mask to seal tight and put my face down, I saw a great expanse of coral and life that I could only describe as an endless reef filled with color and fish everywhere! The fish were so numerous and the mass of reef so long that I became somewhat disoriented underwater as my eyes tried to adjust focus. I don’t remember how long we were in the water here, but I could have stayed much longer.

I was most excited to see my first French angelfish! It was so pretty, its grayish body covered in bright yellow scales. I have yet to see another one, but I don’t think I will ever forget how gracefully it moved below me. I tried to free-dive down for a better look, but I was far too buoyant to get any closer than about 4 feet. Additionally, I saw a chubby porcupine fish (puffer) hovering at the reef’s edge nearer to the bottom. He wasn’t inflated; to me, he seemed kind of adorable, doe-eyed with a big ol’ mouth. But it was the elkhorn coral that took my breath away. I never thought I would get to see a coral reef the way it looks in my dreams. Its color and vastness were overwhelming, spiritually uplifting, and magical. I have to go back there — before it disappears forever.

Various sea fans were seen on the coral reefs.

By the time the last snorkel site of the day, I was exhausted. The open-ocean drop-off was a destination I knew we were going to get to snorkel, but I didn’t realize we were going to see so many locations in a single day. I counted eight snorkel drops in six hours. My back, ankles and arms were sore, and I really did not want to wear my wetsuit any longer, so I removed it thinking I was done. Little did I know that we were about to snorkel the largest wall of coral imaginable.

The first one in the water was Brittany Layden; within minutes, she came to the surface and said, “I just saw a barracuda!” It didn’t take long for everyone else to grab their gear and jump into the dark water. I asked Dr. Turner if we would see another site like this on the trip, he said, “No,” and I realized I had to go in.

Students also saw this spotted trunkfish with a remora hitching a ride.

Putting a wet wetsuit on after it has already been removed is an exhausting task in itself. The tops of my feet were raw from my fins. I decided to take the chance and go in unprotected and with only my mask and snorkel. It was an opportunity that I wasn’t sure I would ever get again, so I went in.

By the time I got in, the barracuda had disappeared into the blue. I swam over to the others and saw an even larger reef wall than in Pelican Cay. It was easily 50 feet tall, and I could see all the way to the bottom. I quickly scanned the water surrounding me for jellyfish because I didn’t want to get stung. I looked down and saw a spotted trunkfish and tried to get the attention of Dr. Bridgeman or Rick who were filming underwater.

Swimming alongside the great wall of coral, we spooked a sea turtle, which quickly darted up and over the reef out of sight. Myself and a few others followed, but without fins I was slower and clumsier in the water. As I continued to try and keep up, I spotted a Nassau grouper 30 feet below me.

Whenever I spotted a new species, I tried to get the other’s attention so they could see it, too. However, trying to talk with a snorkel in your mouth is impossible, and half the time I’d surface and everyone else still had their heads down. I carried on nonetheless. After about 20 minutes, I was done — out of breath, out of the water, and heading back to the dock. This day was going to be impossible to top. A couple other students managed to see the outline of a shark, but they were too far away to make a positive ID. I had hoped to see a shark and yet felt completely satisfied having not seen one. It was a remarkable experience learning in the ocean.

Stevens graduated in May with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science.