“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh with a degree in economics and working in the business field, Michelle Willis ‘89, of South Holland, Illinois, soon realized her true passion was for teaching others.
Willis started her career in education in 1993 and worked her way up from classroom teacher to reading specialist to principal.
Today, she is known as a “turnabout specialist” who transformed the failing Gillespie Tech Elementary School into one of the highest-ranked schools in Chicago, improving student attendance by 93 percent.
During UWO’s Homecoming activities in October, Willis was among top graduates honored at the annual Alumni Awards Celebration with a Distinguished Alumni Award.
“Reflecting on my years at UWO, I would have to say that participating in the student organizations and a variety of altruistic opportunities on campus ignited a passion for service and has helped lead to my success,” she said. “Volunteerism and community service are a satisfying aspect of my life personally and professionally.”
UW Oshkosh music alumnus Tony Memmel ’08, of Nashville, Tennessee, also has a heart for teaching and helping others. The singer-songwriter, speaker, clinician and composer was one of four graduates to receive the Outstanding Young Alumni Award at the October award celebration.
Though he was born without a left forearm and hand, Memmel taught himself to play the guitar. He has toured 45 states in the United States and five countries, honing his craft as a writer and performer. Memmel also is an ambassador for the nonprofit Lucky Fin Project, which supports children with hand and limb differences.
“I work to build casts, stands and devices that allow my students to play music regardless of their physical circumstances,” he said. “I also am actively involved in my church, where I frequently volunteer my time to contribute to its music ministries and engage with and work to help the homeless community in downtown Nashville.”
Along with Willis, the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients included Dawn (Marrier) Auclair ’77, of Oshkosh, a hospital coordinator and organ/tissue donation liaison with Mercy Medical Center/Ascension Health; Richard Guenther ’79, of Cary, North Carolina, a research assistant at North Carolina State University; Brenda Lee Lau ’83, of Venice, California, a creative director and senior writer/producer with ABC Entertainment; Jamie Pollard ’87, of Ames, Iowa, director of athletics at Iowa State University; and Jane (Barta) Vesel ’85 and ’14 DNP, of Marthasville, Missouri, senior nurse-midwife and preceptor at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.
In addition to Memmel, Outstanding Young Alumni Award recipients included Joseph Fenrick ’06 and ’09 MSE, of Fond du Lac, an associate geology lecturer at UW-Fond du Lac; Adam Nothem ’11, of West Bend, a malaria program coordinator with Medicine Education Africa; and Lindsey Stoil ’08 and ’09 MBA, of Falls Church, Virginia, lieutenant in the Medical Services Corps of the U.S. Navy.