How research university alumni are making Michigan a better place
John Economopoulos was born and raised in that small town on the Little Bay de Noc – Escanaba, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. John graduated from the University of Michigan in 1993 with his B.A., eventually going off to law school and traveling the country and overseas. Then, after all of his worldly experience, John decided to move back to his hometown to start a family and his own company. Economopoulos Law Firm, P.C. opened in Escanaba in 2003.
His alma mater is part of what brought him back.
"If it's too cliché to say that I bleed maize and blue, then I'll say this: My platelets are a confetti of two colors that are not red," he says.
But his life in Michigan has been fueled by more than Wolverine pride. Like many graduates of Michigan's research universities, John found that his college experience – and his connection to his community – prepared him for success in business. Call it the "Michigan Experience."
And when alumni of Michigan schools come home to roost, amazing things happen. Businesses begin. Relationships with neighbors deepen. Communities are strengthened and transformed.
Working from home
John knew that he wanted to be an attorney ever since he was ten years old.
"Attorneys are in the people business. My years at the University of Michigan left me well prepared for that endeavor," he says. "The fact that it's a cross-section of just about every demographic that the world has to offer would be preparation enough for the real world. Add to that the fact that it offers so much by the way of academics and you have a pretty special place."
Lawyers can find work pretty much wherever they like, of course. But for John, there's value in working with your neighbors and friends – and contributing to your community.
"Having been raised here, I've had the privilege of assisting many friends," John says. "I don't believe that my job would be nearly as fulfilling if it were nothing more than an endless series of exchanges with total strangers. There's something to be said about starting somewhere with a client other than, 'I have no idea who you are, and you have no idea who I am.'"
Bringing the world to Michigan
Like John Economopoulos, Matt and Keegan Myers returned to their hometown afters years at college and abroad. Matt and Keegan Myers started Broneah Kiteboarding and M-22 apparel companies in Traverse City, Michigan after graduating from Michigan State University in 2003.
The brothers always knew that they wanted to work for themselves. When they started at State, however, they weren't exactly sure what they'd end up doing. It wasn't until the Myers brothers took part in Michigan State University's Study Abroad program that they discovered their passion for kiteboarding. (Keegan studied in Rome while Matt participated in a program that traveled around Europe.)
So enamored were the brothers with the water sport—where riders surf a board powered by a wind-blown sail, or kite—that Matt and Keegan stayed an extra three months in Europe after their programs finished, hitting kiteboarding hotspots like Tarifa, Spain.
"We came back home and no one knew what kiteboarding was," said Matt. "We'd go kiteboarding and people would ask us what we were doing."
The brothers saw an opportunity and opened Broneah Kiteboarding in Traverse City immediately after graduation. Just a few years later, the brothers started the M-22 apparel company, in honor of the route they took along the beaches of northern Michigan. The M-22 line has since grown beyond t-shirts and hoodies, moving into M-22-branded wines and coffees.
Matt says the partnership works well because, besides the brotherly trust shared, Keegan is more business-minded and Matt is more creative. Keegan studied business and accounting while Matt studied the principles of design through State's landscape architecture program.
Of course, without MSU's study abroad program, the brothers may have never discovered the sport – or started the business.
"The study abroad options were huge for us. State backed it and it changed my life more than anything else has," said Matt. "Now we always pressure our employees to study abroad. The programs are pretty awesome."
Justice and care
Born and raised in Detroit, Judy Fitzgerald's education has led her to the other side of the state. The Wayne State alum now lives and works in the small community of Bangor, between Kalamazoo and South Haven along M-43.
Judy will celebrate 20 years at InterCare this June. Her current role is Migrant Health Manager. InterCare's philosophy – that equal access to quality health care is a human right – underscores the work they've been doing for nearly half a century. The organization grew out of a need for providing migrant farm workers with healthcare some 40 years ago.
Fitzgerald graduated from Wayne State with a Bachelor of Science Nursing in 1974. Inspired by a childhood neighbor in Lafayette Park, Judy could never have predicted where her studies ended up taking her. It was both Wayne State's nursing program and the campus activism of the early 1970s that set her on her path.
"As a student activist, I was able to express by views on various injustices, participate in movements that championed the rights of the exploited and oppressed," said Fitzgerald. "In my nursing courses I learned to assess human needs, understand that all behavior has meaning, and that as a nurse I could help empower individuals and families to lead better lives through good health practices. I also learned how to deliver nursing services in a caring, compassionate, and competent way that impacts people positively and builds trust."
The conditions migrant farmworkers faced in Michigan came as a surprise to Fitzgerald, and she's been working ever since at improving their access to healthcare.
"Being in this position has broadened my opportunities to interact with policy makers and organizational leadership people locally, statewide, and nationally, while still being involved with the one-on-one help extended to individual farm workers and their family members at the local level."
In addition to the roles of her official title, Judy also serves on the Emergency Preparedness Planning Committee and the Patient Centered Medical Home Core Team for InterCare, the planning committee for the National Center for Farmworker Health's annual mid-western migrant stream health forum, acts frequently as a presenter at conferences, classes, and workshops, and is active with regional Migrant Resource Councils, Advisory Board of Farmworker Legal Services, the Michigan Migrant Immunization Committee, and the Michigan Primary Care Association Migrant Network.
And it all began for Judy as a young student activist at Wayne State, inspired by her nurse neighbor.
"The combination of academic achievement plus the freedom to be involved in various student organizations became a foundation for a very rewarding nursing career that connected my desire for justice for all with practical hands-on health care."