To gauge the impact an individual's action and legacy will have on a university, examine the significance of the individuals who show up at their retirement party. The influence of Valerie Nilson, Learning Disabilities specialist at the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, cannot be understated, as none other than Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University, appeared at her July retirement party to provide gratitude-filled farewell remarks. The evening was filled with reflections from individuals who could highlight Val's involvement and dedication, weaving a story of her legacy using a common thread of passion.
Val recently told her daughter Kaye that she had come to believe that the secret to happiness is to grow where you are planted. Although Val first entered the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities in 1981 as a temporary secretary in need of the financial support, the center captured her heart. She was soon asked to utilize her compassion and background as an educator as an alternative learning specialist and truly found satisfaction in helping her students overcome challenges. One recent graduate revealed that Val was one of two driving agents who were the reason he had received his diploma from Michigan State University.
The impact of Val's tenure with the ResourceCenter for Persons with Disabilities is likely immeasurable. Director Michael Hudson asserted that her fingerprintswere probably on most of the center's programs, even on his own involvementwith the center. \Val was one of the keyleaders in getting me to come to MSU, and I still remember clearly the day shecalled me," he told attendees. "That'sthe kind of persistence and dedication that Val has used all the time I'veknown her...I always think of Val as exceptional, sustained excellence, and shedoes that from heartfelt compassion." Dr.Norm Abeles of the Psychology Clinic described Val's determination in the 1980sto establish an appropriate assessment that could be used to test students withlearning disabilities to determine their strengths and weaknesses and matchthem with appropriate accommodations. Her quest for accommodation did not stop on MSU's campus, or even in the United States, as Val and Cindy Chalou, Assistant Director of the Office of Study Abroad, consistently worked for 15 years to support the global aspirations of students with disabilities. Although only one student with a disability studied abroad between 1996 and 1999, their determination led to the establishment of the Disability in a Diverse Society program hosted jointly by the Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies in the College of Education andRCPD. Chalou praised Val's leadership in coordinating the program and establishing the Quality Funds scholarship, and called her "consistently passionate about opening doors to students who had previously not considered traveling or studying abroad."
Val'sinvolvement with RCPD did not stop at establishing programs, recruiting personnel, and writing grants. Upon the death of Judy Gentile, the founder of the Office of Programs for HandicapperStudents (now the RCPD) in 1993, Val became the center's interim director, exercising what President Simon referred to as a type of"quiet elegance, but at the same time a steely nerve, that it takes to manipulate a bureaucracy, to do the right thing for students." In addition to serving in leadership roles in the Michigan Association of Higher Education and Disabilities (MI-AHEAD) and the Learning Disabilities Association of Michigan, Val made time to participate in a volunteer faculty mentoring program. Twelve years later, then-mentee and now-Residence Hall Director Temple Smith praised Val for not only helping her navigate the university and balance academic priorities, but for teaching her to "skillfully watch birds, decorate a Christmas tree properly, and bake oatmeal cookies with homemade icing."
Val asserts that the accomplishments outlined above were the result of collaborative efforts; "this job has given me more than I've been able to give. It has given me a sense of fulfillment, and many, many friendships," she said. Despite her modesty, Val's tenure at Michigan State University and the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities is one that no one, not even the president (who encouraged Val to become one of the volunteers she had spent years recruiting), was happy to see the end. As Kaye so articulately stated, we are all grateful that she planted herself in a role that allowed her to not only "share [her] gifts, but find fulfillment."
(Val Nilson with Darryl Steele, the Learning Disabilities Specialist who will be filling her shoes.)