The Rural Alliance for Service Learning
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How to Feel Like An Olympian

How To Feel Like An Olympian: A Case Study From Northern Michigan University

By Charles F. Ganzert


Northern Michigan University is a school of 9,300 students situated on the shore of Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Marquette, where NMU is located, is a city of 19,600 people in a predominantly rural region. The Upper Peninsula includes a geographical area (16,452 sq. mi.) approximately the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. However, the total population of the region is only 317,000 with a density of 19.3 people per square mile. As a result, the Upper Peninsula represents about one quarter of the land mass of the state of Michigan, but just three percent of its population.

The residents call their home “the UP,” and they are proud to call themselves “Yoopers.” The local economy shares a number of characteristics with Appalachian communities, and the major industries are mining, lumbering, and tourism. The UP is adjacent to three of the Great Lakes: Huron, Michigan, and Superior. The peninsula itself is attached to Wisconsin, and it is physically and politically separated from the lower peninsula of Michigan by the Straits of Mackinaw. The UP is linked to the lower peninsula by the Mackinaw Bridge, and Yoopers tend to call the down-state residents “trolls,” because they live below the bridge.

Over the last decade, Marquette has been recognized by a number of national organizations as a dynamic community. It was designated an “All American” City by the National Civic League, a “Michigan Cool City” by Governor Granholm, a “Most Livable Community” by Partners for Livable Communities, one of the “Top 10 Best Places to Live for Hunters and Anglers” by Outdoor Life Magazine, one of the “Top 10 Winter Family Getaways” by the Weather Channel, and a “Distinctive Destination” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The town also has active sister city exchange programs with Kajaani, Finland, and Higashiomi, Japan.

Northern Michigan University:

Northern Michigan University is a state supported liberal arts university that includes a main campus and a community college facility. As one of Michigan’s regional universities, NMU is committed to working with and in the region in which it resides, understanding its strengths and challenges, and marshaling its scholarly resources in support of the community. The university also recognizes that regional colleges and rural ones, in particular, play an essential role in training the teachers, medical staff, accountants, and managers who live and work in their areas. The students from regional schools tend to continue living and working within the community after graduation. NMU has century-long history of maintaining a supportive role and working with people for the good of the community.

In 1991, NMU began to focus on its link to the community with the help of a Kellogg Foundation Grant. The resulting Student Leader Fellowship Program (SLFP) was and still is an initiative that includes intensive leadership training and mentorship for 50 students each year. Not long after the SLFP was established, a volunteer center was created, and members of the Social Work faculty began working with the center as a means of identifying organizations and placing students in field settings.

During 2000 and 2001, the Education Department received a Learn and Serve grant to train student teachers how to employ service learning in the classroom. Two years later, a Learn and Serve grant helped to expand ASL into disciplines outside Education by making it possible for faculty to attend a series of seminars. The Student Activities and Leadership Program Office was assigned the job of administering the program and supporting ASL efforts across campus. This office is now called the Center for Student Enrichment.

David Bonsall, the director of the Center, thinks that NMU has some distinct advantages in developing Academic Service Learning. “There is an interested faculty open to experimenting with this teaching methodology, “ he says. “It is surrounded by an ideally sized community – one that is large enough to possess numerous challenges and opportunities for ASL projects and yet small enough for the development of significant relationships between the campus and the community.” In addition, there is a broad base of support and a well developed structure that helps to advance the ASL agenda.

In 2006, the university implemented a program designed to encourage and recognize students for their activities in service. The Superior Edge enables students to record their community work in four topical areas or edges: Citizenship, Diversity, Leadership, and Real World. To complete any of the edges, a student must log 100 hours of work in that area. While Academic Service Learning represents a separate effort, ASL courses do qualify for edge hours. Upon graduation, each student receives a student enrichment transcript along with their academic transcript confirming their work . If a student completes all four edges, they are recognized with a Superior Edge certificate. The goal of the Superior Edge effort is to help students to “Learn to Live a Life That Matters.” During the fall 2010 semester, the program included 2,160 registered participants.

By 2006, community service and ASL, in particular, had become an integral part of the NMU experience. The ASL program enjoyed a wide base of support across the institution with faculty, staff, and administrators engaged in the effort. In recent years, ASL has continued to grow, and during the 2009-2010 academic year, 69 individual courses with 112 sections in 17 different departments included ASL content. Forty-nine members of the faculty and 1,900 students participated that year.

Other institutional efforts that have contributed to the development of Academic Service Learning across campus have included establishing an ASL Advisory Board, having an ASL definition and performance criteria approved by the Faculty Senate, and getting the Advisory Board designated as the supervising organization for ASL efforts across campus. A course designation procedure was created making it easier for students to look in the university bulletin to locate classes with ASL content. The Provost set aside funds for Action Grants in support of ASL projects and research, and the Advisory Board established an application protocol.

The Provost’s Office also funded presentations and seminars with visiting scholars. In addition, a series of workshops, one called “Breakfast with…..” to identify and highlight the work being done by faculty and another called “Coffee with the Community” to link members of the faculty with non-profits throughout the area and to identify problems and projects, were created.

Recently, the Advisory Board has begun to collect course outcomes data in an attempt to understand how ASL classes are influencing the lives of students across the institution. There is also a website where information about ASL can be easily located (

The result of these efforts is that Academic Service Learning has become part of the university culture. Not only are the professors in English, Education, and Social Work civically engaged, but teachers in Nursing, Political Science, Construction Management, Criminal Justice, Business, and Biology are also involved in community projects. The French program has included ASL in all of its courses across the curriculum, and the university has begun to speak of NMU as an engaged campus in its advertising and outreach efforts.

The Communication and Performance Studies Department:

Like many of the departments across campus, the faculty in the Communication and Performance Studies Department is engaged in project-oriented learning with community partners. The CAPS department is an unusual combination of disciplines and majors that includes Public Relations, Entertainment and Sports Promotion, Theatre, Communication Studies, Electronic Journalism, and Media Production. Members of the Public Relations (PR) and Entertainment and Sports Promotion (ESP) faculty regularly do client projects with non-profit organizations. And the Theatre faculty, students and staff perform and provide technical assistance in local high schools and community groups on an on-going basis.

While the electronic media may not solve the problems of a rural community, they can play an active role in identifying and discussing issues, and they can serve as a community booster during challenging economic times. The Media Production faculty and students in the CAPS Department have created Public Service Announcements for non-profits throughout the community since 1992. The audio production classes have worked with the American Heart Association, the UP Diabetes Outreach Network, the Marquette Women’s Center, the American Association of University Women, the NMU Counseling Center, and others. A number of these radio announcements have been recognized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters as part of their High School and College Production Awards.

The Advanced Audio students have produced hour-long music and interview radio shows in the academic recording studios since 2001. These programs, done cooperatively with WNMU FM, the campus public radio station, have included local and regional performers as well as visiting international artists from the NMU performing arts series. The broadcasts of these recording have extended the reach of the live concerts to an audience beyond the group of people sitting in an auditorium. The series has exposed students to new music and cultures, and two of the shows have received Broadcast Excellence Awards from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

One member of the CAPS faculty who has successfully integrated service into the curriculum is Dwight Brady. His Advanced Video Production students won a Michigan Association of Broadcasters Broadcast Excellence Award in 2006 for one of their broadcast projects.

While the Alaska’s Iditarod is probably the most famous sled dog race in the nation, the U.P. 200 is another competitive sled dog race that takes place on the Upper Peninsula. In February 2005, Dr. Brady’s Advanced Video class recorded the Marquette to Grand Marais and back again race by collecting video at the start and then end of the competition, interviewing participants at various rest stops, and speaking with the race organizers and sponsors. From this footage, the class produced a half-hour documentary called The U.P. 200: A Community Pulling Together that aired across the region on WNMU Public Television.

This project represents a good example of what Robert Bringle calls “learning to serve and serving to learn.” The students, faculty, Public Television station, race participants, and community were all winners in this cooperative effort. The students learned how to plan and produce an award winning documentary, the race organizers got a quality video that they were able to use in fund raising, the public television station aired a uniquely local show, and the race participants enjoyed seeing themselves on television. Said Dr. Brady, “My students knew the U.P. Sled Dog Association was counting on them, and of course, I was counting on them to pull this off too. This caused them to focus, work as a team, and exercise professionalism in executing the project.” The documentary was, in fact, of such professional quality that John Murname of ESPN2 asked if he could use some of the video footage in the network’s Timeless program. As a result, Dr. Brady’s class project went a long way to show how service and learning can complement one another in the academic community.


While many service learning activities are focused on making a financial, educational, medical, or social impact on a community, there are other ways that project-oriented learning can contribute to the life of a region. One of the organizations that makes Northern Michigan University unique, in addition to its location in a helping community, is the Olympic training center. The U.S. Olympic Education Center (USOEC) is the only Olympic training facility in the country housed on a university campus, enabling athletes to earn a degree while working on their sport. Members of the boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, cross country skiing, and short track speed skating teams are housed on campus and train in Marquette.

It is exciting to see world-class athletes on campus, and their international experiences in competition often contribute a unique perspective to classes. But there are other benefits to having the USOEC facility on campus, and one is that the center has hosted a number of Olympic events in which the athletes and NMU students have participated. These events have included the 2003 World Cup Short Track Speed Skating Competition where international teams and individual athletes skated to earn points that determine the world rankings in their sport. Marquette was also chosen as the host city for the U.S. Short Track Speed Skating Trials in 2005 where the U.S. Olympic team was selected. In addition, “The USOEC v. China” was a non-skating competition between the U.S. and Chinese boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling teams prior to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

In the fall of 2009 just prior to the Vancouver games, both the U.S. Short Track Speed Skating Trials and the World Cup were again held at the NMU Berry Events Center. The World Cup was the last qualifier before the Olympic Games, and it was organized by the International Skating Union, U.S. Speed Skating, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Thirty-five countries sent 250 athletes to compete with 110 racers qualifying for the games.

Careers can be made or lost at such an event. Each winner moves on to compete at the Olympics, but a loser returns home. Conditions affect performance, and there are high expectations and high levels of stress. Everything must go right. Students from the Communication and Performance Studies Department and others throughout the university worked with the USOEC staff and contributed to the success of these events at a number of levels.

Walter Niebauer, a member of the Public Relations faculty within the CAPS Department, has worked with the USOEC since the 2003 competition and served on the local USOEC planning and marketing committee. The students in the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) that he advises have been active in the planning and implementation of each of the sports competitions in Marquette. In 2009, his Campaigns and Publicity Techniques classes worked directly with the USOEC staff, the racers, and the media. They helped to facilitate the event and worked in the press box sharing race results with the announcers, the race organizers, and the local, regional, and international media covering the event.

Students in Victor Holiday’s Stagecraft and Stage Lighting classes designed and built a performance space for the ice arena and managed the lighting and special effects during the opening and closing ceremonies. NMU Theatre students also performed on that stage, and an audio recording of the opening ceremony was incorporated into a feature story broadcast on National Public Radio.

The CAPS Media Production and Electronic Journalism students in Dr. Brady’s Sports and Special Events Programming and Advanced Video Production classes recorded images that were displayed on a large screen TV within the sports facility. Their work included instant replays for current races and recaps of the race results from the day before. Media Production students also assisted the Versus Cable Network crew that broadcast the competition.

At times, members of the International Skating Union expressed their surprise at how well the Marquette events were managed. For similar competitions in other, larger cities, like Seoul or Calgary, the first things the local hosts were inclined to do were to secure a corporate sponsor to help defray the expenses and to hire a professional event coordinator to manage all the activities. In Marquette, a number of events were handled by the faculty, staff and students. When asked how that is possible, Dr. Niebauer replied, “Our students are serious young professionals, and they do good work.”

But the CAPS classes were not the only ones involved in these races. The NMU Physics Department redesigned the crash pads around the sports arena. Video footage of the pad tests and World Cup crashes aired on the NBC Television Network during the Vancouver Games.

NMU Nursing students assisted with the drug testing program; people from the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department assisted the athletes while training; Marketing students in Business worked on communication; Construction Management students created plywood cutouts decorating the downtown; and ROTC and Criminal Justice students assisted in security. The World Cup represented an opportunity for disciplines throughout the university community to work on various parts of a single, large project. And they succeeded in doing so. Jeff Klienschmidt, Director of the U.S. Olympic Education Center, believes that NMU was chosen as the host for these competitions because the race organizers trust Marquette. “The students were tremendous,” said Klienschmidt. “They were enthusiastic and they had good ideas. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

International Skating Union officials have suggested to Klienschmidt that, because so many speed skating records have been broken in Marquette, the city has the right to claim that it has “the fastest ice on earth.” And in February 2010, USA Today published an article naming the “Ten Greatest Places to Feel Like an Olympic Champion.” Marquette, Michigan, was on that list along with Park City, Utah, host of the 2006 Olympic Games and Lake Placid, New York, the site of 1980 games.


Like other significant Academic Service Learning events, the World Cup was a win-win experience for everyone involved. The racers and organizers enjoyed a successful competition, and the NMU participants helped to manage a competition with a significant international component. The World Cup also represented a chance to perform service in support of U.S. Olympic athletes, their team, and our country.

Locally, people appreciated the opportunity to see their small town featured in the national and international media, which helped foster a sense of pride and accomplishment in the area and its citizens. As residents of a northern locale, people understand and appreciate winter sports. After Native Americans, the Upper Peninsula was settled primarily by Finnish, Cornish, and French settlers. Young people of the area have fewer opportunities to travel out across the globe than folks in other parts of the country, and so, it was a rare opportunity to have the world come to visit Marquette.

The World Cup at Northern Michigan University illustrates how a modest-sized university in a rural area can marshal its resources with relatively few bureaucratic impediments to accomplish things. A significant number of departments and disciplines on campus contributed to the effort. Jeff Klienschmidt of the USOEC reports that 256 faculty, staff, and students worked on the various projects, and it seems unusual to find such a large portion of a campus at work on one event.

The World Cup and all of the other community projects across campus illustrate how service, in general, and Academic Service Learning, in particular, have become an integral part of the fabric of Northern Michigan University. ASL at NMU now enjoys support from the top down as well as the bottom up. As was suggested earlier, the university has begun to market itself as a place where service is valued. President Les Wong has made Community Engagement one of the featured components of his Roadmap to 2015, the long-term plan for the university. And the institution itself has applied for and received a designation as a Community-Engaged Campus by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. NMU anticipates a bright future where innovative teaching takes place and where NMU faculty and students work with community partners to resolve the challenges of the region.

RASL Activities

RASL just finished organizing an anthology on rural service learning, currently under review. 

In the past, RASL has organized gatherings of rural service learning practitioners and is hoping to do so again.

RASL Membership

RASL is not currently a formal membership organization.  If you would like to get on our e-mail list (we only use it to announce major stuff), please see the contact page.
Yorkshire Dales Landscape background photo by Petr Kratochvil.