GRCC honors three for Excellence in Education



Leah Nixon

Director of Communications


Aug. 22, 2014 GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. The three winners of Grand Rapids Community College’s 2014 Excellence in Education Awards have different areas of expertise but are equally inspired to put in their own time to make sure students reach their full potential.

The Excellence in Education Awards were established in 1989 to honor GRCC employees — all of whom are nominated by their peers — for their contributions to the college, higher education and the community. Tom Neils, a chemistry professor in GRCC’s physical sciences department, is the winner of this year’s Faculty Award, and Mary Beth O’Rourke, an adjunct instructor in the department, received the Adjunct Award. Mary Kay Bethune, a customer service manager in the financial aid office, is the winner of the Staff Award.

“The Excellence in Education Award is highly regarded by all GRCC employees because the nominations come from colleagues," said President Dr. Steven C. Ender. “The committee that selects the winners always has a difficult task, and this year was no exception.”

Neils, who began teaching at GRCC in 1994, is known for arriving early, staying late and coming in on his days off to give students every opportunity to ask questions, complete labs and learn concepts. One colleague noted that Neils serves as a “recruiter” for science, working to spark an interest in the subject through his service at STEM events; summer science camps at Calvin College, MLK Academy and the University of Michigan’s Center for Engineering Diversity Outreach; and weekly meetings of the Science Club that he has helped start at City Middle School.

He has developed relationships with the chemistry departments at Hope College and Grand Valley State University that have given more than 40 GRCC students the opportunity to conduct paid summer scientific research at those institutions. He also leads GRCC’s chemical technology program, which prepares students to work in chemical industries.

“Many of our students have Tom’s dedication and hard work to thank for their success,” Ender said. “He values their potential and knows that with our support and understanding, they can achieve their goals.”

O’Rourke has taught courses in chemistry, physics, physical science and math during her 19 years as an adjunct instructor at GRCC. She often stays late to give students time to complete tests and laboratory activities. But she also spends much of her time working with her colleagues to find innovative ways to bring science education to students, exploring new lab assignments and introducing technology. She spent two days a week this summer helping to create a series of online labs for a physical science course.

“Mary Beth’s experience is valuable not only to students but to her colleagues as well,” Ender said. “She keeps track of what students struggle with and explores new methods for teaching those concepts. Students in her classes know that they can ask questions and be treated with respect. She holds them to high standards and is ready with additional explanations or just some encouragement to help them meet those standards.”

As a customer service manager in financial aid, Bethune often sees students and their families who are panicked and overwhelmed by the process. Combining persistence and compassion, she is known by colleagues as a “troubleshooter extraordinaire” who works tirelessly to connect students to the resources they need to help them reach their goals.

In addition to training GRCC staff on the many changes in financial aid, Bethune works to “de-mystify” the process for students and the community. She presents workshops for GRCC departments as well as for community organizations, including Bethany Christian Services and area women’s shelters. She has worked on development of the My Financial Aid webpage and the Information Station, a series of videos guiding students and parents through various processes.

“Mary Kay works with many of our most at-risk students — those who have aged out of foster care, first-generation college students, refugees and international students,” Ender said. “She is not only a knowledgeable guide to the financial aid process for them but a compassionate advocate.”

The three awards were announced during ceremonies Thursday.

Grand Rapids Community College has been offering educational opportunities in West Michigan for 100 years. Established in 1914, the college offers degree courses, certification and training programs, and workshops and personal enrichment classes. Offerings are held on GRCC’s downtown Grand Rapids campus, as well as at several locations throughout Kent and Ottawa counties.