Graduate students take their turn to help raise awareness of ALS

Contact: Cheryl Roland
Photo of Scott Matzka.

Matzka, right, speaks during an event.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Taking turns: it is a concept that we learn very early in life, and it forms the basis of many of our relationships. It is a concept that Scott Matzka revisited after he was diagnosed with ALS in 2015.

The 38-year-old father of two met Nancy Frates, co-founder of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and mother of a son with ALS, who told him that the disease gives people diagnosed with it so little time to be advocates that individuals with ALS and their family members must take turns carrying the mantle of awareness. Frates told Matzka that it was his turn.

Inspired by the Ice Bucket Challenge, others diagnosed with ALS, and his own family, Matzka decided to found an organization, name it MyTurn and devote it to raising awareness about the disease, funds for his own care and funds to assist with ALS awareness.

Taking their turn

Enter Dr. Derrick McIver, Western Michigan University assistant professor of management and an acquaintance of Matzka’s, whose MBA leadership course regularly takes on semester-long course projects aimed at helping a variety of organizations. Past clients have included the City of Watervliet, Michigan, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation. As Matzka and McIver spoke about what he was trying to do with MyTurn, McIver saw a good learning opportunity for students, the chance for the MBA students to see purposeful leadership in action through Matzka, and an organization that could benefit from the cross-functional thinking that MBA classes can provide. 

"One of the key goals of the class is to provide students with autonomy over the team, task, time and technique with projects like this," says McIver. "The only challenge is they must have an impact. With these experiential projects, we hope that students learn not only about collaboration and teamwork but also about informal and emergent leadership. We want to touch on servant and authentic leadership. If done effectively, students also learn about community leadership and leading with a purpose. With a project like MyTurn, students also learn about shifting to intrinsic motivation and away from a grade or other extrinsic rewards, realizing how satisfying working with a purpose can be."

McIver’s approach is something that students valued greatly as they discussed how to have the greatest impact on MyTurn through a fundraising event.   

The class decided to host a charity masquerade with the theme of Removing the Mask and Giving a Face to ALS, with the intention that it be a sustainable, annual event. Students worked on every aspect of the event from logistics, to the advertising campaign, to engaging sponsors. "As someone with an operational excellence background in for-profit organizations, the project took me out of my comfort zone by exposing me to dynamics I had not experienced in my career before," says MBA student Scott Lemons.   

"I liked the format of this course, where Dr. McIver provided space for the class to govern itself and decide what kind of event we wanted to put on, how we wanted to structure the team and what our goals would be," says MBA student John Curran. "It was like a carefully observed vacuum—he didn't chart our course for us, which I think led to the class being very engaged, but he was there providing feedback and support along the way."

Leading and learning

In planning the event, students were able to:

  • Observe the leadership styles of fellow students.
  • Gain experience in leadership and evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses.
  • Touch upon many topics ranging from operational approaches, to promotion, community engagement, metrics and tracking.

But chief among the takeaways was the idea of trust—a theme in the course literature and in the project. "I was able to apply the concepts we discussed in our lectures and readings in real-time to try to be a better team member during this project," says Curran. "I made a conscious effort to trust that team members would do quality work on time and not look over the shoulders of others. This is not natural to me but something I have to get better at, and this project helped."

And the team members were not on their own.  The community was there to support them. "We really have to thank our sponsors who supported this event," says McIver. Many of the sponsoring organizations had MBA students in the course who were also their employees.  

Of course, none of this would have happened without Matzka who created something that others want to support. All told, the MBA students raised nearly $13,000 for MyTurn within one semester. The funds will benefit the Matzka family and Kalamazoo ALS awareness.

"This project was the most effective thing I have encountered in the MBA program at bringing people together," says Curran. "The fact that there were real-world implications for a genuinely good cause made it imperative that everyone come through. The colleagues I worked with over the course of this semester are people I will stay in touch with throughout the program and beyond."

Lemons echoes this. "Perhaps other than third grade with Mrs. Lemons (my mom), this has been the best educational experience I have ever had. The combination of course content, schedule and approach, and experiential learning made for an extraordinary semester."

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