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Cell phone service being what it is in the "hollers" of Appalachia, it took some time and perseverance to finally connect with Michael Muhs `08 who had spent his first year after graduating from Lakeland as a teacher at The David School in the small town of David, Kentucky. Michael conducted the interview for this story while sitting on a noisy motor coach, surrounded by about 30 backpacks and plastic tubs filled with supplies, on route to his next adventure, co-leading a hiking expedition in Wyoming for a group called Catholic Youth Expeditions.
Michael left Lakeland with a major in biological science and a heartfelt desire to give back to the world. In his senior year, he had received the Rath Distinguished Scholarship through the Wisconsin Foundation of Independent Colleges. "This gift allowed me to graduate without any debt," says Michael. "I thought, OK, I'm not in debt, I had an awesome education, why don't I try to share that somehow? So, I made the decision to spend two years in service."
Currently Michael is halfway through that two-year period. It began in rural Kentucky with his work at The David School, teaching Appalachian high school dropouts and youth-at-risk living in extreme poverty. Michael's job was to teach integrated science, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, physics, earth science as well as Algebra I and II, geometry, and industrial arts.
How did his students respond to him? "Well, it was my first year teaching, so in the first semester, they were testing my limits. I learned not to waiver. I had to learn to stick to my guns and make sure that things I said in the beginning got carried through to the end. I'd hear their stories and want to go easy on them, but I had to use a little bit of tough love. Many of these students were on their third high school, many were falling through the cracks. You've heard of 'no child left behind,' well these were children definitely left behind."
Michael cites two veteran Milwaukee teachers, Jill and Steven Haberman, who were his mentors at The David School. They helped him navigate that first semester. By second semester, he had hit his stride, made friends through a group called The Christian Appalachian Project, and was enjoying the incredible beauty of the area, as well as the knowledge that he was making a difference in his students' lives. Since leaving the school, he has been happily surprised to find his students keeping in touch with him via email and on Facebook.
Michael credits his Lakeland experience with his ultimate success of getting through the challenge of teaching under-served teenagers in the poorest part of our country. He drew upon "that personal touch that professors had at Lakeland. They could really see you in the crowd and be available to you. As a teacher you want to be available and approachable. You want to be open and able to be there for someone when they have a problem or question. You want to be competent in your area of study to handle what they bring to you. There wasn't any time I felt I had any trouble with that, thanks to the amazing education I had received from teachers like Jeff Schwehm, Greg Smith, Kathy Rath Marr, and Paul Pickhardt."
He also fondly remembers friendships with Lakeland chaplain Kelly Stone, who advised Habitat for Humanity trips that Michael participated in, Residence Life's Ryan Opahle, sociology professor Alan Mock, and vice president for student development, Nate Dehne, who were (and are) all good friends and, throughout everything, remained "incredibly supportive."Michael gives a special thanks to Paul Pickhardt, assistant professor of Biology, not only for his teaching, but for his example as a Peace Corps volunteer. Michael sees his career aspirations as closely paralleling Pickhardt's. After his service time, Michael plans to eventually go to grad school, in order to teach and conduct research at the college level possibly in the area of ecology, much like Professor Pickhardt.
While at Lakeland, Michael was very involved in more than his academic studies. He was the co-captain of the track team and misses the camaraderie of those early-morning work outs. He also served for three summers as a language coach for ELI students, an experience he valued for putting him in touch with fellow classmates from all over the world. He also served as President of Mortar Board. "Coming into Lakeland, I was the kid who preferred to stay in the back, but I guess I went right to the front," Michael said. "I thought I would just learn some things; just slip in and slip out. I did lots of things I wasn't expecting of myself. I guess you could say that I really blossomed."
Currently, Michael has an application pending to become an Americorps volunteer for an Outdoor Educator position. This is essentially a science teacher that is placed at a county or state organization to help young people learn about the natural elements of the area.
His thoughts for new graduates? "Everybody has something in their heart that they really want to do to help them realize their full potential. So, just have the confidence to jump on it, even if it takes you to an unfamiliar place. I have been given many gifts and now there is the desire to give that back. That's what happened to me at Lakeland."