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MCAN announces 2023 College Access Impact Award winners

Different images of all the speakers at Michigan College Access Impact Awards 2023

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. − Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) honored college access and success champions from across the state Wednesday night at its 12th annual conference. The 2023 College Access Impact Awards recognized 13 people and organizations who are positively impacting college access and attainment in Michigan. This year’s conference, held at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, is themed The Time is Now: All in for Attainment, reaffirming MCAN’s commitment to helping Michigan reach 60% college attainment by 2030.

“The College Access Impact Awards honor the individuals and organizations who have made extraordinary efforts to improve postsecondary attainment in Michigan, especially among low-income students, first-generation college-going students and students of color,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, MCAN executive director. “The award winners play a crucial role in helping us reach Sixty by 30 through their dedicated efforts to improve college readiness, participation and completion within their communities and across the state. By working to build inclusive college-going cultures, these award winners are helping create a brighter economic future for Michigan’s students.”

Since these awards began in 2015, MCAN has recognized over 100 people and organizations. The 2023 College Access Impact Award honorees are:

The Compass Award
Recipients of this award have launched and/or championed bold proposals that focus on increasing Michigan’s postsecondary attainment rate. This year, MCAN bestowed the Compass Award to one individual and one organization:

  • Michelle Richard is a senior education policy adviser to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Her work as part of the governor’s vision has been key to MCAN’s collaborations across the state. As a former staff member in the Office of Sixty by 30, Richard helped lead and implement Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect. Now, Richard is providing leadership and support in designing the new Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential (MiLEAP).
  • Business Leaders for Michigan is the state’s business roundtable dedicated to making Michigan a Top 10 state for jobs, education, widely shared prosperity and a healthy economy. Business Leaders for Michigan worked quickly to support and advocate for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. It continues to prioritize accountability and equity in higher education.

The Ombudsman Award
MCAN values the leadership and service of AmeriCorps members serving as college advisers and college completion coaches across the state. This award honors a member from each Michigan corps — AdviseMI, Michigan State University College Advising Corps, Michigan College Advising Corps and College Completion Corps — to recognize their passion for college access and success.

  • The Michigan College Advising Corps winner is Greta Kruse, a second-year adviser at J.W. Sexton High School in Lansing. In Kruse’s first year at Sexton, she met with 99% of the senior class. Beyond that, she met with 85% of those seniors more than five times throughout the school year. A remarkable 91% of the senior class submitted at least one college application and nearly 40% submitted three or more college applications.
  • The Michigan State University College Advising Corps honoree is Emily Tenniswood. Tenniswood served for two terms at Algonac High School, where she surpassed her goals with 100% student one-on-one meetings, 100% submission of at least one college application and 47% submission of three or more applications. Additionally, she achieved a remarkable 63% FAFSA completion rate for her senior class.
  • The AdviseMI awardee is Marielle Sirk, who served as an adviser for one year at Sault Area High School. During that time, she met with 100% of seniors to establish a postsecondary plan, met with 66% of their families, and achieved a 61% FAFSA completion rate. Additionally, 67% of the students Sirk worked with submitted college applications, and 66% were accepted to college. Sirk is now serving as a teacher at Sault Area High School, supporting new advisers in their work and continuing to champion students in their postsecondary pursuits.
  • The College Completion Corps winner is Alex Walsh, who served as a coach for two years at Northwestern Michigan College. As a veteran himself, Walsh served as a resource to other coaches in supporting students who are veterans. In all, 81% of his students persisted from semester to semester, and the students in his cohort who met with Walsh at least twice during the semester showed an increase in their cumulative GPA. Now, he works at the same college as the veteran student success coach.

The Lighthouse Award
The recipient of this new award is an individual institution leader or a college/university that has been exemplary in advancing innovative ways to expand access, build critical relationships in the region, and support student persistence and completion. Bill Pink, president of Ferris State University, is the inaugural honoree for this award. After five years as president of Grand Rapids Community College, Pink was inducted into his role at Ferris State University in October 2022. Earlier this year, Ferris announced the launch of Student Success Hubs across Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, providing students with a streamlined, more well-rounded experience by bringing critical services closer to home. Ferris’ Student Success Hubs are embedded on the campuses of more than 20 community college partners, and the hubs will work to advance Ferris’ mission of education opportunities for all.

The Flagship Award
The recipient of this award is an individual or organization that has provided leadership in creating effective alliances focused on postsecondary attainment. MCAN presented the 2023 Flagship Award to Blue Water College Access Network. In its work, Blue Water College Access Network has been a leader in finding innovative ways to reduce summer melt and has shared its expertise beyond Michigan at the National College Attainment Network’s 2022 conference in Atlanta. Blue Water College Access Network has forged close relationships with the AmeriCorps advisers in its community, working to find housing for them and ensuring they are set up for success in local high schools.

The Chuck Wilbur Promise Keeper Award
The Michigan Promise Zones Association bestows the Promise Keeper Award on individuals or organizations that have outstanding leadership and achievement in the work of supporting free college tuition, technical training and high-quality certifications. This year, the Promise Keeper Award has been renamed to the Chuck Wilbur Promise Keeper Award in recognition of a man who has worked extensively on the development and growth of the Michigan Promise Zones, provided technical assistance as the zones launched and assisted with the formation of the Michigan Promise Zones Association in 2016.

This year’s recipient of the Chuck Wilbur Promise Keeper Award is Alloyd Blackmon. Blackmon served as the director of community projects for Whirlpool Corporation when she joined the Benton Harbor Promise as an executive on loan in 2013. She was employed and compensated by Whirlpool, while also tasked with supporting then-Benton Harbor Promise program director Dionne Bowens to drive Promise work in the community. In 2016, when MCAN formed the Michigan Promise Zones Association, Blackmon was a board member and later the treasurer. She has traveled the nation for several PromiseNet Conferences and assisted with local and statewide data management efforts. After she retired from Whirlpool Corporation in June 2020, she continued supporting the Promise's work. Blackmon assumed the responsibility of CEO for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Southwest Michigan in August 2022. She continues to support Benton Harbor’s new program director, Kayla Hurse, as she grows and leads their local Promise.

The Chief Mate Award
The Chief Mate Award goes to an individual school counselor or school counseling program that has made significant strides in advancing college readiness and enrollment supports and services provided to students, moving the needle on critical postsecondary metrics. The 2023 honoree is Bekah Ward. Ward is a middle school counselor with Lincoln Consolidated Schools, where she has worked extensively to build a college-going culture with her students. As a leader in her field, Ward taught an MCAN course for school counselors that focused on middle school college-going culture strategies and has been an integral part of the School Counselor Fellows cohort. In her district and beyond, she is a powerful voice for school counselors and is connected to the community through her leadership and advocacy.

The Marina Award
The recipient of this award is a school that has advanced its college-going culture and/or tackled systems-level change. The 2023 Marina Award honoree is Wayne-Westland Community Schools. For several years, Wayne-Westland has shown remarkable district-level leadership and vision for a systemwide approach to college and career readiness and advising. Every school hosts a full-time college adviser, and school counselors undergo extensive training and professional development. Wayne-Westland believes every student should receive postsecondary exposure, advising and support; have a menu of options; and make an informed choice for life after high school.

The Harbor Award
The recipient of the Harbor Award is an organization that has significantly contributed to the college access field through direct service in its community. The inaugural honoree for the Harbor Award is Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars. At the close of 2022, Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars had partnered with 15 high schools and served over 400 students, and it continues to grow in reach and impact. Notably, 78% of the students it serves will be the first generation in their family to attend a postsecondary institution, and 65% are students of color. Its Next Level Scholars program supports students as they persist in postsecondary education, and its team is dedicated to providing the resources students in Southeast Michigan need to achieve postsecondary success.

The Brandy Johnson Board of Directors Award
To celebrate MCAN's fifth anniversary in 2015, the board of directors created an award that they may present when the occasion arises but is not necessarily given each year. In 2019, it was named in honor of MCAN founder and former executive director Brandy Johnson. This award is given to an individual or organization that has particularly supported MCAN's mission and the Sixty by 30 Goal. This year, MCAN is thrilled to present it to Carmela Langley. Langley has spent her career relentlessly pursuing MCAN’s values about postsecondary attainment. She has worked across numerous school districts serving MCAN’s priority populations to build school counseling programs focused on creating a schoolwide college-going culture. Whether in Flint, Pontiac, Detroit or Harper Woods, she has taken the time to support the development of others around her, all while showing an unwavering commitment to the future of students’ lives.

To learn more about MCAN’s College Access Impact Awards, visit



Quotes from College Access Impact Awards honorees:

“It’s an honor to be recognized by Michigan College Access Network – the state’s leader for expanding college access and success. The governor has made unprecedented investments in scholarships, from Michigan Reconnect to the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, helping put more students on an affordable path to success. We all play critical roles in expanding opportunities and outcomes for Michigan students, and I’m proud to work alongside a broad coalition of leaders that are committed to helping more people earn their degree or certificate so that they can make it in Michigan.”
Michelle Richard, senior education policy advisor to Governor Gretchen Whitmer

“College has the ability to open doors – for Michigan residents to acquire skills and credentials that help them earn higher incomes and advance in their careers, for businesses of all sizes to close talent gaps and upskill their workforce and for our state to improve our economic competitiveness. It is incumbent on all of us to help expand opportunities and remove barriers so that more people can take advantage of all our two-year and four-year institutions have to offer. Business Leaders for Michigan is honored to be the recipient of this year’s Compass Award.”
Lindsay Case Palsrok, vice president of government affairs, Business Leaders for Michigan

“I’m deeply humbled to be honored by Michigan College Access Network in this way. I’m proud to be a member of my school community and to support students in actualizing their postsecondary goals.”
Greta Kruse, adviser, J.W. Sexton High School

“I am incredibly honored to be a recipient of the 2023 Ombudsman Award. I look forward to continuing to advocate for students at all levels of higher education as I pursue my own educational journey in becoming a physician.”
Emily Tenniswood, former adviser, Algonac High School

“Serving with AmeriCorps and AdviseMI motivated me to continue making a difference in high school students' paths to postsecondary success. I am thankful for the opportunities I gained during my service with Michigan College Access Network. I am now able to use my knowledge to continue making impacts as a science teacher at the same high school I served in.”
Marielle Sirk, teacher, Sault Area High School

"I am incredibly honored and grateful to Michigan College Access Network and my peers for recognizing my effort to be a catalyst for positive change in Northwestern Michigan College students' lives. My ambition is to help people across the world rise from poverty and build generational wealth, and this is not something I can do without the support of those with whom I work."
Alex Walsh, veteran student success coach, Northwestern Michigan College

“I am honored to be recognized by an organization that I have greatly respected since being here in Michigan. This recognition is reflective of the many colleagues I’ve worked with who are focused on students and their success and well-being. I am nothing without great people to work with!”
Dr. Bill Pink, president, Ferris State University

“We're extremely honored and humbled to receive this recognition from our partners at Michigan College Access Network. This award serves as validation to the network that our impact is living outside the walls of our meetings and supporting the students who need us the most. We'll take this moment to celebrate the efforts of this amazing community of St. Clair County before getting back to work eliminating the challenges and barriers our students face on their pathways to postsecondary success.”
Nick Beaudry, LCAN coordinator and supervisor of career and college programs for St. Clair County RESA

“I am truly honored and appreciative of this award. I'm grateful to be part of this amazing group that is committed to helping every Michigan student – especially those who face unbelievable barriers – achieve their postsecondary aspirations.”
Alloyd Blackmon, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor

“As a middle school counselor, the students I serve are at a pivotal point in their lives. They are discovering who they are, what they like to do and what they might be meant to be. I strive to help them through their journey by showing them what is possible after high school and what they are capable of being. Our students need to be exposed to as many opportunities as possible as early as possible, and it has become my passion to focus on this for middle-level students. Thank you to Michigan College Access Network for providing the space for the middle-level voice to be heard in the area of college access.”
Bekah Ward, middle school counselor, Lincoln Consolidated Schools

“On behalf of the Wayne-Westland Community School District, we are incredibly grateful and honored to have been selected as the recipient of the Marina Award. This achievement was made possible due to our shared goal and vision of creating access for our students, as well as removing any barriers that may hinder their exposure, preparation and overall growth. We express our heartfelt gratitude to MCAN for your commitment to Sixty by 30, college access and equity. We are excited about the opportunities we can create and the difference we can make in the lives of our students today and in the future.”
Daryl Beebe, executive director of college and career readiness and social emotional learning, Wayne-Westland Community School District

“With over 30 years of serving Southeast Michigan students, I’m so humbled for Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars to be recognized for the work we’ve been doing as the first recipients of Michigan College Access Network’s Harbor Award. We know our students have that spark to achieve their dream of earning a college degree or certificate and we are honored to have the opportunity to empower and support them to achieve post-secondary success through the Next Level Scholars Program. We are so lucky to be a part of this special time in their lives and we look forward to continuing our work to strengthen and expand equitable opportunities for all students to earn a post-secondary credential, reach their goals and strengthen our communities.”
Christa Funk, executive director, Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars

"I am proud to be a part of this network, and I am honored to receive the Brandy Johnson Board of Directors Award. I know that this award is not just for me. It is for all of us who are working tirelessly to make college access and postsecondary career options a reality for all students. The vision of Michigan College Access Network aligns with what we collectively believe: that education is the key to opportunity, equity and social change. Together, we are creating a world where every student has the opportunity to achieve a lifetime of success."
Dr. Carmela Langley, school counselor, Harper Woods High School

MCAN honored college access and success champions from across the state at its 12th annual conference. The 2023 College Access Impact Awards recognized 13 people and organizations who are positively impacting college access and attainment in Michigan.