The three McPherson College graduates receiving the Young Alumni award this year all share a passion for teaching an education – although the form it takes for each of them varies widely.
This year’s Young Alumni Award recipients are Nick Griggs ’05 of McPherson, Kan.; Omar Mireles ’04 of Roma, Texas; and Erika Kitzel Saffer ’95 of Arriba, Colo. The honor recognizes outstanding and accomplished MC alumni who have graduated within approximately the last 30 years. The recognition ceremony was held in an all-campus gathering in Brown Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 9.
When Griggs thinks back on his McPherson College days, the first words that pop to his mind might give the impression he had a bad time:
“Uncomfortable.” “Scary.” “Embarrassing.”
“There were moments of: ‘Holy smokes. What am I doing here?’” he said.
But a final descriptive word puts the others into perspective:
“That’s the only word for the feeling of accomplishment,” Griggs said.
See, Griggs spent four years at McPherson College pushing himself and being challenged by the faculty and staff at McPherson College as he took on participating in performing arts, singing in choir, band and even the football team.
It was difficult. It was painful, but in the way that growing pains during adolescence can be painful. Through it all, his teachers and mentors were there to support him.
“They were encouraging and they were pushing me, so I got better – at everything,” Griggs said. “No matter how hard it got or how difficult, people were there for me. They welcomed that I was able to do as much of it as I could and wanted me to be as successful as I could at all of it. At the end of it, I realized I had grown.”
Upon graduating from McPherson College, Griggs went on to be the choral director at Perry-Lecompton High School for five years, while also serving as an athletic coach. Then in 2011, McPherson called Griggs back, where he has served as the choral director at McPherson High School ever since. He’s also been able to continue to share his athletic expertise as the football and track coach at McPherson Middle School.
While the arts and athletics might seem in opposition, Griggs never saw it that way. Learning in the framework of liberal arts at McPherson College, he saw the value of diverse experience.
“It was healthy to have options and have a campus where you could get your feet wet doing a whole bunch of things,” he said. “I’m an emotional and passionate person. You could be very passionate about excellence in music and in football.”
Griggs said he felt humbled by receiving the Young Alumni Award.
“I’m just Nick. I’m a regular old dude,” he said. “When you show up for a black tie event with jeans on – that’s kind of what I feel like.”
Mireles has a hunger for achievement, developed by some of the most painful and discouraging moments in his life:
The Christmas when his parents couldn’t afford to buy him any gifts. His first semester on the MC football team, when he couldn’t seem to break out of being the receiver with the worse stats. The first test he took from Dr. Laura Workman Eells.
“I flunked it with flying colors,” Mireles said.
What made those hard times a positive in the long run was that Mireles never gave up. He swore after that Christmas he would work his way out of poverty. After that first semester at McPherson College, he practiced until he became a starter for the Bulldogs the rest of his college career.
As for Dr. Workman Eells, well, she saw potential in Mireles and said that if he graduated, she’d throw a party for him when he did. They were both good to their word.
“I’m never satisfied with just being me. I want to continue to be better,” Mireles said. I got it by the sweat of my brow. Nothing was ever given to me. I worked at it. I earned it. It’s the will to win. Those moments really define who I am. I’m not going to let anybody tell me I’m not good enough.”
After graduating from McPherson College with a degree in business administration: management, Mireles became an entrepreneur as a mobile phone retailer. Education called to him, however, when a friend invited him to apply for a teaching and coaching position at Roma High School in Texas – his hometown.
After securing his teacher certification, he took the job in 2007 and has been a special education teacher and football and track coach ever since. Roma High School recognized him as “Teacher of the Year” in 2012.
Mireles said he is a “people person” and that his work with special needs students gives him an outlet to serve others and appreciate his life.
“I’ve always had that special place in my heart for wanting to help people. I love every moment of it. I love working with kids and adults,” he said. “I feel very blessed. We assume we have, and then you don’t miss it until you don’t have it.”
Mireles credited his advisers and professors with helping him on his way to success.
“They all believed in me,” he said. “They all molded me into the man I am.”
Erika Kitzel Saffer
Saffer is undoubtedly a teacher and an educator, but not in the most traditional sense.
Her “classrooms” are located at Lincoln Community Hospital in Hugo, Colo., and her lessons involve teaching people how to reduce their pain and increase their mobility. As the director of the physical, occupational and speech therapy department at the hospital, Saffer helps her patients learn how to live a fuller life.
“I truly am an educator, just in a different aspect,” Saffer said. “I get to teach people what’s going on and why they’re hurting. I’m not the person that fixes them. I try to give them the tools so that they can help themselves.”
It was an interdisciplinary major in “Health Science” – which Saffer customized to her own interests in pursuing physical therapy – and her master’s degree in physical therapy from Wichita State University that helped her to land her first job at Lincoln Community. She’s been there ever since. She has found it so rewarding that she has not felt a need to look for any other work in her decade-long career.
“I have enjoyed people and helping them enjoy more independence, eliminating pain and helping them to function as much as I possibly can,” she said.
Starting as a physical therapist, Saffer advanced to director and grew the therapy department from four to nine individuals. Along the way, she earned her doctorate in physical therapy from Boston University and pass the Colorado state and national nursing home administrator board exams in 2014.
As the only therapy clinic within about 80 miles in a sparsely populated area of Colorado, Saffer is helping to ensure critical services. Saffer has found it rewarding as former patients have come up to her in the community and told her how much their therapy has helped them.
“When a therapist encounters a patient, you’re going to get to know them pretty well,” she said.
Saffer’s staff has been able to give hands-on, personal attention to each patient – literally – as they incorporate manipulation and massage into the therapy – along with teaching patients therapeutic exercises.
“I’m very fortunate out here to be able to spend an entire hour with my patients, hands on,” Saffer said. “I think it’s more of a well-rounded way to treat.”
Saffer said the honor from MC was important to her, as her roots run at McPherson College, as a third-generation alumna of MC and the daughter Larry Kitzel, an MC music professor for 30 years.
“I was a baby growing up on that campus. There was no question of where I was going to college when I got to that age,” she said. “It was just family.”