YPSILANTI – Look up, say yes, stay curious and keep connected.
That was the crisp and inspiring advice from Brenda Alten, keynote speaker for the 41st annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at Eastern Michigan University.
Alten, lead of Human Resources Communications with the J.M. Smucker Company, spoke during the day of virtual Zoom student presentations on Friday, March 26. She noted that participating in the Undergraduate Symposium was a highlight of her college career, praising this year’s presenters and faculty mentors.
Alten, who graduated from EMU in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in Communication, noted a common denominator of the student presenters. “You all have something you’re passionate about and can share,” she said.
In imparting her advice, Alten recalled her own career at EMU, which included her 1987 symposium presentation, a critical analysis of the famous speech given by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1986 summit meeting with President Ronald Reagan in Reykjavík, Iceland.
Alten noted that among the most compelling parts of the 1987 symposium was seeing what other students were doing – work on fascinating topics way out of her realm, such as black holes, and the arts and sophisticated physical science.
“I realized I had been so focused on my own work that I never looked up,” Alten recalled. “I began to appreciate all that Eastern and my fellow students had to offer. The symposium taught me this about myself, and it’s something I continue to work on every day. Looking up during the pandemic now is more important than ever. You never know what might discover about yourself.”
Alten urged students to seek to move out of their comfort zone, adding, “Every choice you make today affects what you do tomorrow.”
She grew up in Battle Creek, and earned a scholarship from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which helped her attend EMU. Five years later, while pursuing graduate studies in Ohio, she was asked to return to do a speech in Battle Creek regarding her experiences and benefits derived from the scholarship.
Despite the burdens of intense studies, filling out resumes and the excitement and pressure of mounting a job search, Alten took a deep figurative breath, said yes, and returned to give her speech.
Several days later, she got a call from Smucker’s. Tim Smucker, then chairman of the company, had heard the speech and suggested the company hop on interviewing Alten for a job.
“Because I said yes to the banquet, I was able to say yes to the interview, and to the many opportunities I’ve had with the company,” Alten said, relishing the story. “The wheels were set in motion because I said yes.”
Alten has served in a wide variety of roles in her 30 plus years with J.M. Smucker, a product of her continuing curiosity and eagerness to learn new things.
“Smucker’s encourages its employees to take risks and to take on new roles,” Alten said. “It’s helped me have multiple careers, all with the same company. It proves you can do just about anything with a communications degree.”
Those varying roles, experiences and tasks included announcing an acquisition that doubled the size the company, organizing Smucker’s Stars On Ice figure skating events, working with multiple reporters in making special announcements, and spending time with former President Jimmy Carter.
“Anything is possible,” Alten said. “But it would not have been possible if I hadn’t asked questions,” adding that the intellectual curiosity shown by the symposium presenters represents that kind of momentum.
Alten spoke of her long friendship with professor emeritus Dennis Beagen, an EMU Regent, former head of the Communication, Media and Theatre Arts Department, EMU forensics coach and longtime champion of the symposium.
“You’ll find that true connection can be hard to find,” Alten said. “Keep connected. Embrace it. Nurture it. Students, you are the mentors of the future … Nurture that and pay it forward for others.”
About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.