Alumni in the news

Amon-Ra St. Brown, Anthony Pittman share special moment with Lions fan, cancer survivor

On Monday afternoon, a video involved Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown went viral. St. Brown shared an intimate conversation with a young Lions fan named Lucas, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. After the game, St. Brown reached out on Twitter to see if anyone could find Lucas so that he could send him an autographed game jersey. Lucas’ dad quickly responded. A special moment like this doesn’t happen without some helpful people behind the scenes, including Lions linebacker Anthony Pittman, Lions Manager of Player and Alumni Relations Maurice Pearson and Ryan Newcom. Newcom is Lucas’ cousin, and he is also a former teammate of Pittman’s from their days at Wayne State. Newcom reached out to Pittman, hoping to create a special day for Lucas.
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A window to them as people’: This Detroit teacher helps adult learners return to the classroom

By Ethan Bakuli  In recent years, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has prioritized restructuring its GED program. Adult educator Christian Young, a Wayne State University College of Education alumni, was named Adult Educator of the Year by the Michigan Reading Association. Young focuses on welcoming his adult students back to school, recognizing that for many of them, it is the first time they have stepped foot in a classroom in years. For Young, endearing students to class assignments and term papers starts with an autobiographical essay, an exercise that focuses on the student’s life. Not only does it allow him to gauge their writing skills, but it “gives me a window to them as people,” Young said. He added, “I continue to pay attention to them throughout the year and find plenty of ways to incorporate their likes and dreams into the lessons.” 
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Southfield funeral director hopes Barbie will bring more women to her profession

By Chanel Stitt  Every time Sarah Brown-Derbah takes a stride down the Barbie aisle of a store, she sees a lot of professions that the doll is portraying — certified nursing assistant, doctor, nurse, teacher, social worker and politician. But she has never been able to find her profession — funeral home director. So she started a petition, which she plans to send to Mattel, the parent company of Barbie, in an effort to get the company to make a funeral director doll. She's collected 415 so far and plans to draft the letter to the toymaker once she feels she has gathered enough signatures.  “I've been looking for a funeral director Barbie for probably about 10 years, Brown-Derbah, of Southfield, said, "and I noticed the Barbie line has expanded.” The National Funeral Directors Association's membership reports that 81.1% of funeral home directors are men. But there is a shift happening within mortuary schools. In 2019, the organization reported that women made up 71.9% of mortuary school attendees. While Brown-Derbah was in mortuary school at Wayne State University, there were only seven men in her class.  
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Death rituals in Black communities have been altered or forgone in the pandemic

By Ayesha Rascoe  Mortician Stephen R. Kemp, who is an alum of the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and a leader in the Detroit funeral industry, speaks with NPR host Ayesha Rascoe about how the pandemic is affecting the role of funeral homes in Black communities. COVID-19’s death toll in the United States is over 837,000, and it keeps climbing, resulting in a lot of business for funeral homes over the last two years. Funeral homes aren’t necessarily making more money because many Americans went without costly burials, opting for less expensive cremations, which translates to a change in death rituals, especially in Black communities. “…I do see cremation growth because financially, it makes a whole lot of sense. We really – because of the pandemic, we really weren’t prepared with insurances and with the proper amount of money to do that. And cemeteries have increased their prices really, really disproportionately to the inflation rate…you’re beginning to see a lot more funerals here at the funeral home versus traditional places like a church…we have them in parks and tents, in people’s homes, in the backyards. And what traditionally has been the funeral has evolved into a celebration of life. I tell people, get pictures together. Put them on a flash drive. Play the person’s favorite music…” 
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WSU endowment scholarship community bolstered by alum

Out of her passion and devotion to high school and college students, Detroit philanthropist Carolyn Patrick-Wanzo is working to protect the future of social work and music through the creation of several endowment scholarships at Wayne State University with her late husband. Patrick-Wanzo, 76, became interested in the world of endowment scholarships when she and her husband, Mel Wanzo, a trombone player best known for playing in the Count Basie Orchestra decided to give back to the community. “He would say, ‘You can give your life to the music and in 10 years nobody would know you existed,’” she said of her jazz musician husband who played the trombone in the big band. “We would talk about, ‘Let’s do something sustainable,’ when we retired.” That sustainability came in the form of endowment scholarships in the music department at WSU – the first one in 2003.  
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St. Clair Shores native who helped develop technology for COVID-19 vaccine honored

As a child in St. Clair Shores, Jason McLellan, Ph.D., knew he wanted to help people. McLellan said he had always thought he’d be a doctor because he wanted to help people. At Wayne State University, he excelled at chemistry and organic chemistry, which aren’t subjects many gravitate toward, he said. “The professors took notice and asked me to work in their lab performing research in organic chemistry,” he said. “I loved it, working in the lab.” He enjoyed it so much that, after publishing his first paper in organic chemistry, he switched his major from pre-med. Taking a graduate-level biochemistry class, he realized that subject fascinated him, as well. In 2003, McLellan graduated from Wayne State University and headed to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for graduate school, where he joined a structural biology laboratory that determines three-dimensional structures of proteins and other biological molecules. It was that path that eventually led him to have an impact on the COVID-19 vaccines now being administered around the world. “I was trained in a technique called X-ray crystallography,” he said. He likened it to growing rock candy, but with crystalized proteins instead. Doing so enabled him and the other researchers to be able to three-dimensional print a protein to see what it looks like and learn how it functions. The design McLellan helped to develop was used in the vaccines created by Johnson and Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer and Novavax. He said they also worked with Eli Lilly to create the antibody treatment to treat COVID-19. His mother, Karen McLellan, said, “He always wanted to be a pediatrician, for as long as I can remember. It changed when he went to Wayne State. Some of the professors took him under his wing, got him into his labs there. That started him on his trajectory.”
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Brighton mother, daughter share experiences caring for COVID-19 patients in ICU, hospice

When Michigan went into coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, Madison and Darlene Wiljanen went to work. Madison, 23, was working as a nursing assistant at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Her mother, Darlene, is a hospice nurse. "It was absolutely insane... people would transition so quickly," Madison said. "They would come in, I’d talk to them; they wouldn’t be on a ventilator yet. They would be on high-flow oxygen being monitored very closely. The next day I would come back and they would be ventilated, so nonverbal, sedated. Then two days later, they would be gone." Madison spent three weeks working with patients in the ICU who had COVID-19. It was a drastic change from the cardiac telemetry floor she worked on for months previously. She said "there was no light at the end of the tunnel" when she was working on that unit. This year Madison participated in a vaccine initiative in Detroit through the Detroit Public Health Department. Together with a group of doctors and nurses, Madison and several of her classmates in Wayne State's nursing program visited group homes in Detroit. Many of those living in the group homes had special needs, Madison said. "It’s a matter of life or death for these people," she said. "For me it was, yeah, I want the vaccine so I can have things go back to normal, but these people need it to keep them out of the hospital."
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17 teachers at Detroit school: Instead of Teacher Appreciation gifts, help us buy supplies

The Elliottorian Business and Professional Women's Club is the first club of Black business women in Detroit and Michigan and was founded in 1928. Throughout its history, awarding scholarships has been a staple of the organization’s public-service initiatives, with many scholarships awarded to students that have attended and graduated from Wayne State University. The organization’s connection to Wayne State includes former New Detroit President and CEO Shirley Coleman Stancato, who received a scholarship to Wayne State University from the Elliottorians after graduating from Cass Tech. Today, Stancato is a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.
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Wayne State plans 2022 celebration for grads who missed in-person commencement ceremony

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson knows now isn't the time to have an in-person graduation, but he hasn't stopped thinking about what it could look like when the Detroit university can once again offer one. Increasingly, his thoughts have gone back a couple of decades to a 1995 ceremony he visited in post-apartheid South Africa. "It's one of those graduations I'll never forget," Wilson recently told the Free Press. He's now tasked the Wayne State staff to come up with some sort of grand celebration for the graduates who, because of COVID-19, didn't get an in-person ceremony in the spring of 2020 and December 2020 and won't get one this spring either. While no official date has been set, the school is planning on something in April 2022. School officials hope to attract a big name speaker and are working to figure out other details. The school is still planning a virtual ceremony this spring for the class of 2021, just like it did for other classes affected by COVID-19. "I have no idea what the level of interest will be, but we wanted to offer something special," Wilson said. The university didn't want to tack the ceremony on to ceremonies for 2021-2022 school year graduates. "We want something separate from next May," Wilson said. "We don't want to take away from special days for anyone. They each deserve their own day." The 1995 University of Natal ceremony Wilson attended in South Africa was billed as a reconciliation ceremony for all the Black students who had graduated but hadn't had a ceremony, because of the apartheid of the time in South Africa. "All of these students from the past four or five decades were invited," Wilson said. Various dignitaries gave speeches, including some of the most powerful speeches Wilson has ever heard. Wayne State officials believe about 10,000 graduates will have missed an in-person commencement ceremony because of the pandemic.