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Savion Sanford
Cornerstone University
Psychology/Family Studies
Hometown: Grand Rapids

West Michigan's best and brightest student leaders

By Alexandra Fluegel
Photography by Johnny Quirin

This year’s best and brightest students come from a variety of backgrounds and places, and they bring with them experiences that have cultivated a curiosity about the world around them.

Though there is often talk about doom and gloom when it comes to the job market and today’s college grads, these students are armed with a positive attitude, a penchant for risk taking, and the understanding that hard work still pays off.

Each school was asked to recommend students who are active on-campus and in the community, and who demonstrate a passion for leadership.

We asked the students about their experiences and what they envision for themselves in the future. Their responses were collected and condensed, and seek to illustrate what great potential and leadership the city has waiting in its wings.

Grand Rapids is lucky to have each one of these individuals as members of the community, where hopefully they will remain long into the future.

Savion Sanford
Savion Sanford said the way he decided to attend Cornerstone University was “kind of interesting.” Sanford received a scholarship offer from the school’s president to study at the university based on his impressive leadership experience, and Sanford said he jumped at the opportunity.

“I really wanted to get involved right off the bat,” he said. During his first year, the Grand Rapids native landed a position as a student senator. “It’s hard for younger students to get roles because they aren’t acquainted with the school’s culture, but you just have to keep working.”

And he did. The following year, Sanford became the student body vice-president, the youngest in the school’s history at that time. Flash forward to his senior year and Sanford spent a year of service as the student body president, a role he described as “very challenging.”

During his presidency, Sanford helped organize neighborhood clean-up initiatives, partnering with other area schools and nonprofit organizations, and said he always aimed to be seen as a leader with an “open door policy,” which wasn’t always easy.

“My biggest challenge in college was learning how to work with and for people,” said Sanford, who says his dream is to go into counseling. “I love to help people. I love to work with people. I want to do that for the rest of my life.”

Emily Smitter
“I’m always going at 100 mph,” said Emily Smitter, whose on-campus involvement includes two presidencies and an event coordinator position with the Campus Democrats organization. She said her road to Grand Rapids Community College was tough, so once she arrived she wanted to do everything she could to make the most of her time there.

Emily Smitter
Grand Rapids Community College
Hospitality Management
Hometown: Grand Rapids

Smitter credits the school’s TRiO program, designed to assist first-generation college students, with helping her feel confident in her academic pursuits. To return the favor, she has served as a mentor for incoming students in the program.

“I’ve been able to say, ‘I’ve been in your position; here’s what you need to do,’” she said.

Having that support has led Smitter to become an award-winning student, and she is currently pursuing a coveted hospitality industry internship in California.

“I have surrounded myself with people who always push me, even when I want to give up on myself.”
She said that, although the internship may take her away temporarily, Grand Rapids is where she wants to live.

“Grand Rapids is becoming a popular city, and the hospitality industry is really blossoming. It would absolutely break my heart to move.”

Tennille Benedict
“How am I going to get through nursing school with seven children?”


Tennille Benedict
Davenport University
Hometown: Hastings, Mich.

This was the question Tennille Benedict found herself asking a year and a half ago when the first generation college student decided the time was right for her to pursue her lifetime goal of helping others.

Benedict started nursing school at 19, yet made the decision to take a break to work full-time when her husband, Joe, lost his job. After he regained employment, the couple discussed the best choice for their family, and she returned to finish her schooling.

“Growing up, I always wanted to do something helpful,” said Benedict, who described her childhood as “very difficult.”

“I’m a survivor. When you come out of something difficult, you know your purpose and there’s that innate drive to do it and support people.” Benedict is a mentor for Sacred Beginnings, a rehabilitation group for women who have fallen victim to human trafficking, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as the founder of a support group for families facing issues related to Hallerman Syndrome, a rare disease that affects 200 people worldwide.

After she receives her bachelor’s degree, she plans to pursue a doctorate degree with the aim of opening a practice specializing in natural family planning.

While there are days when it’s hard to maintain a positive outlook, Benedict said the support she receives from family, faculty and friends has made all the difference. “I’m doing my best, and we celebrate the little victories.”

She said her children serve as one of her biggest motivations. “I’m setting the example for them and showing them how important an education is. Even though it’s been challenging, it has been totally worth it.”

Amanda Carmer
Kendall College of Art and Design
Studio Art
Hometown: Mishawaka, Ind.

Salvador Jimenez
Kendall College of Art and Design
Hometown: Jamay, Jalisco, Mexico

Amanda Carmer
After teaching art to elementary students, Amanda Carmer decided she wanted to do something more. Enter Kendall College, where Carmer is pursuing her MFA in studio art while teaching undergraduate photography classes and being active in the local arts community.

Carmer recently helped launch Craft House, an artist resource center on South Division she describes as a “support system” for artists by artists.

“There was this need that existed in the artist community for professional development tools,” she said of the catalyst for the idea. “We’re sort of like a guidance counselor. We offer exhibition space as well as tutorials on how to write grants, résumés, use online resources and build portfolios — things artists really need but are somewhat difficult to come by.”

Craft House was awarded funding from Start Garden earlier this year, which Carmer said helped drive momentum for the work they do.

“It was really eye-opening. There’s so many resources that Start Garden offers in addition to the funding, and that was helpful for us since we’re not doing this so much to make money, but rather because we’re passionate about something.”

That something is quite simple, according to Carmer. “If you show up, stuff happens, so show up and do something.”

Salvador Jimenez
Salvador Jimenez sees himself as an observer. Before moving to Grand Rapids to pursue his MFA, he lived in Chicago, where he said he would often walk around watching and talking to people around him.

“Chicago was very formative for me. It was a vibrant, artistic community,” he said of his neighborhood, which he described as a cross-section of immigrant populations. “I decided early on that I wanted to make art that sends a message — has a purpose — and use it as a venue of activism.”

Jimenez immigrated to the United States at age 15 and said his struggles with identity, culture, language, injustice and immigration have been major themes that have emerged in his work.

“If someone is touched by my work or it changes their perspective, I see that as a powerful thing. Something visual can change someone, or at least make them stop and reconsider what their conclusions are.”

He is hesitant to call himself a leader, but rather looks at himself as someone who tends to have initiative.

“I want to be a leader who is replaceable, a leader who helps create other people that have the same initiative. I find there’s a difference in choosing to lead for power and control, and leading for the common interest of the community.”


Jack Iott
Grand Valley State University
Finance/Business Economics
Hometown: Milford, Mich.

Jack Iott
There are four things that drive Jack Iott: “Pride, character, teamwork and a commitment to excellence,” said the Grand Valley State University student who has been active in student government and was a member of the school’s track team for four years.

“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to give 100 percent, and if I’m not, I’m not doing it justice,” he said.

Iott came to Grand Valley to run track and said that experience taught him the importance of teamwork and perseverance.

“The track season is all year round, and so it teaches you about hard work. It gave me the confidence to attack anything that I want,” he said.

That includes student government, which Iott became involved in during his sophomore year.
“I felt passionate about campus affairs, and I was really impressed by the students and by how much GVSU cared about listening to us and working with us to make GV a better place,” he said.

His work with student senate has translated into a desire to serve in politics post-graduation, and even amidst the current contentious political climate, he remains confident his generation can have a positive impact.

“We can help. Our generation has a really good opportunity. Heated discussions happen, which calls for an importance for leaders to listen, understand, and try and connect people to the greater cause.”

Shayna Moon
Ferris State University
Digital Animation and Game Design
Hometown: Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Shayna Moon
Shayna Moon is part of the burgeoning industry of video game design and said it was the challenges of the field that attracted her to it.

She studied economics at Hope College for two years, but after watching a film about game design, she decided to change schools and majors.

Surprisingly, she didn’t play a lot of video games growing up.

“I never understood how a game could be used to convey emotion and wonderful characters, and it was something I wanted to try,” she said.

Moon said she enjoys the freedom the industry allows.

“It’s a Wild West situation. There’s very little regulation — everyone’s out there on their own trying to succeed. There are companies developing software and publishing platforms, and they want content.”

The program at Ferris has taught Moon how to be a part of that production and her studies at Hope have helped her understand the business aspect of driving interest toward her product.

Above all, she said the artistic merit of what she creates is most important. “If you can create something innovative and beautiful, someone will be interested.”

Madeleine Burns
Aquinas College
Sustainable Business
Hometown: Almont, Mich.

Madeleine Burns
Madeleine Burns likes being involved. During her sophomore year, she was the budget director for the student senate and an assistant for the Campus Life office that helps orchestrate large-scale events on campus. She tries to make a difference in any way she can.

Making a difference was one of the reasons she elected to change her major to sustainable business at the beginning of her second year.

“The recent talks of what’s happening in the world really hit home. I began to think about where the world will be in 20 years — it’s scary, but good. It’s making people seek change,” she said.

The major’s combination of science and business also drew her in.

“Companies are beginning to see the value in being sustainable. They’re beginning to have a triple bottom line that includes profit as well as social and environmental issues,” she said.

Burns said educating people about ways to be more sustainable is essential. “That’s the best thing we can do — educate people about the issues in the world, not hide them. We can’t improve upon things if we don’t acknowledge their existence.”

She plans to continue to seek out opportunities to lead during her remaining years at Aquinas. “I’ve learned so much and I want to continue to spur change.”

Her motto: “Have vision and be persistent.”

Kay Borst
Aquinas College
Hometown: Plymouth, Mich.

Kay Borst
“If you can collaborate, you can make something cool happen,” said Kay Borst, a student at Aquinas College. “It’s helpful to work with others with different areas of expertise.”

Through her work as a resident assistant and planning student events, Borst learned firsthand that, while working together isn’t easy, it’s worth the effort.

She said technology makes it easier than ever to collaborate, which brings new opportunities as well as increased responsibility.

“It’s easier now to communicate instantly with people, and it’s important to watch what you say. It happens so fast, and everyone has to learn what messages are OK to send and when.”

Since it’s still early in her college career, Borst said she isn’t certain what she would like to do when she’s finished with school, but she said it’s important for her to find something she loves.

“If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t be happy. With any role, there are going to be parts that aren’t so glamorous. There’s going to be some dirty work. Finding something that you’re really passionate about means you know you’re always going to try your hardest to do a good job.”

Her biggest piece of advice for anyone? “Learn small lessons everywhere.”


Ryan Struyk 
Calvin College
Political Science/Mathematics
Hometown: Grand Rapids

Joella Ranaivoson
Calvin College
Birthplace: Madagascar

Ryan Struyk
Although Ryan Struyk is pursuing degrees in political science and mathematics, journalism is what really gets him going.

While interning for a local political party, he began writing articles for them and soon discovered the downfalls of partisan writing. “I became more passionate about the factual reporting and truth in politics,” he said.

This led him to become involved with Calvin’s on-campus newspaper, Chimes. He was the publication’s first online editor. “There were a lot of people interested in having an online presence that was more than an archive,” said Struyk.

As online editor, Struyk said he’s made it a priority to increase the content and strives to engage students by offering them up-to-date, correct information.

“Social media changes the dynamic of what news is and how it spreads and breaks and who’s reading it. It puts importance on making sure facts are right. The first run will go viral, but the corrections will not.”

Struyk said he believes the increase in citizen journalism, exemplified by the recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon, presents an interesting situation.

“It opens the floodgates for misinformation. People are live-tweeting what’s going on, and the media has to decide what to report.”

He sees this as a good thing, though. “It shows the importance of good information and pursuing truth.”

Joella Ranaivoson
Joella Ranaisvoson is hesitant to name a hometown given that she’s called a number of places around the world home before coming to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College. Her parents were missionaries, and Ranaivoson has lived in numerous countries including Madagascar, Papua New Guinea and Kenya.

As a student, Ranaisovson and a few other students began the school’s first organization focused on global missions. “All of us had a heart for missions, and we thought the global missionary work was missing as a focus,” she explained.

Ranaisvoson — whose interdisciplinary degree combines studies of international relations, religion and writing — also helped assist in new student orientations. She said working for the school helped her to learn a lot about infrastructure and begin to understand how organizations operate.

“It’s easy to dislike things when you don’t understand how they work,” she said.

Enrolled in Calvin’s seminary program, Ranaivoson said she plans on continuing her ministry work and going where God takes her.

“Growing up as a missionary kid, I was like, ‘Oh, I need to leave the U.S. and be around non-missionary people,’” said Ranaisvoson. But after a powerful trip to New York City, she said she is keeping missionary work as an open path.

“If I’m working with people who have a different view, that’s the best.” GR

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