Meet Dr. Ayanna Howard, One of the Nation’s Most Promising Engineers


If you’ve ever wondered what a Black woman roboticist looks like, shift your attention to Ayanna Howard, owner and chief technology officer of an Atlanta-based company called Zyrobotics.

Recognized as one of Business Insider’s 23 most powerful women engineers, Howard makes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fun and accessible for children with disabilities through educational apps, wireless toys and e-books.

Why focus on children with special needs?

“When you make something accessible and inclusive to kids with disabilities, you make it accessible and inclusive for every child,” Howard explains.

Many children with disabilities face motor limitations. This makes touching the screens of devices like a tablet or iPad difficult, impossible even.

Here’s the wow factor: TabAccess, a Bluetooth switch interface, allows anyone with motor limitations to control a tablet or iPad without touching the screen. Zyrobotics’ products also work to strengthen fine motor skills, timing and visual perception.

At first glance, the Zumo Learning System—Zyrobotics’ newest product—looks like any other stuffed animal, but this turtle, a wireless smart toy, communicates with a combined tablet upon touching its shell.

With Black women making up the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S., Howard utilizes online resources to effectively market her startup. She credits Google AdWords for getting Zyrobotics noticed as it approaches 100,000 downloads.

Read the rest of my story for [here]. 

Reaching higher


Casey Fox, 20, says he cried when he was accepted into the 22-week YouthBuild construction skills program at WCC. (Photo by Jessica Bibbee)

‘It’s a whole new me:’ WCC student credits YouthBuild program with changing his life

For the past five months, Casey Fox has been repainting community parks and completing various community service projects around Ypsilanti, while working to put the pieces of his life back together.

Fox, 20, owes his newfound success to YouthBuild, a nationwide program aimed at teaching building construction skills to disadvantaged youth between ages 16-24, while they work toward earning a GED. WCC was the only college in Michigan to receive the $899,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor last fall.

“This program gave me a second chance. It feels great to succeed,” Fox said. “They’re there to help you and they never judge you.”

WCC welcomed its first round of participants—21 to be exact—to campus in February.

To be accepted into the 22-week program, Fox had to successfully complete a six-day mental toughness challenge, which consisted of reading, writing and math tests, team-building exercises and the task of building a bird house.

“When I found out I got into the program, I started crying,” Fox said. “Since then, my attitude has changed, my grades have improved and my strong mindset is back. It’s a whole new me.”

After completing the program, Fox plans to further his education by returning to WCC, where he will pursue an associate degree in automotive services. Then, he’s off to become a mechanic.

Recently, Fox began working on a tiny house that WCC will use to train YouthBuild students before they begin working on low-income housing in the community. The 164-square-feet house will include a kitchen, bathroom and loft for sleeping.

While on the path to a better life, Fox says being a positive role model to his two younger brothers and making his parents and grandparents proud are most important.

“When I dropped out, I didn’t care about anything, including my future,” he said. “If it wasn’t for WCC, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”

“Many students enter the program with low self-esteem and they’re not used to having anyone outside of their family or community in their corner,” said Cristy Lindemann, department chair of construction technology at WCC and director of the YouthBuild Grant. “Students who didn’t understand the next phase in their lives suddenly want more from their education and are ready to explore various career paths. It’s exciting to see the transformations that happen.”

After completing the YouthBuild program, Fox will attain a GED, construction certifications and an OSHA certification, but perhaps one of the most important things he will attain is confidence and a sense of purpose.
His advice to others who have walked in his shoes?

“Come to WCC,” Fox said. “What’s offered here cannot be found anywhere else. You can still be successful, but you have to want it. No one else can want it for you.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of On the Record.

New WCC dean: ‘It’s an honor to be a part of someone’s success story’


Liz Orbits, WCC’s new Dean of Student Support Services (Photo by Jessica Bibbee)

Liz Orbits has spent a lifetime serving the underserved. So, when the opportunity to help students and the community on a broader level presented itself, she was all in.

After serving on an interim basis for several months, Orbits was recently appointed to Dean of Student Support Services at Washtenaw Community College.

Previously, Orbits was manager of the Student Resource Center (SRC) at WCC, where she worked with a caseload of students, community groups to solicit funding, developed workshops to support at-risk populations and oversaw the college’s food pantry.

Orbits holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities from the University of Michigan and two master’s degrees from Eastern Michigan University—one in educational psychology and the other in counseling. Liz is a licensed professional counselor and will soon receive her Ed.D. in community college leadership from Ferris State University.

“Community colleges are a big part of my value system,” Orbits said. “They provide second chances for individuals who might not have had an initial opportunity to attend college. It’s rewarding to work with diverse populations of students, especially the underserved and seeing students overcome challenges and reach their academic goals.”

Orbits brings 10 years of knowledge and experience in academic advising, career counseling, case management and mental health services in university and community college settings.

In her new role, Orbits will oversee academic advising, personal counseling services, the SRC, the International Student Center, Learning Support Services, and the Adult Transition (GED preparation) program.

As SRC manager, Orbits worked to bring on a group of “dedicated and ethical” professionals who have made the center what it is today.

“The SRC case managers have been instrumental in showcasing the SRC’s services by partnering with other departments on campus to provide events and workshops, as well as building community networks that the college can be proud of,” Orbits said. “Most importantly, they have and continue to serve our students well.”

Moving forward, there are a multitude of goals Orbits wants to accomplish as dean, including showcasing Student Support Services (Advising and Counseling, Career Services, Transfer Resources, etc.) to ensure that WCC students are connected to these services seamlessly.

Furthermore, she hopes to work directly with faculty to help them understand the significance of Student Support Services as it relates to student success, retention and completion. But, her main mission is to remain student-centered.

“Our students come first. Every decision we make impacts them,” Orbits said. “Because of WCC’s open-door policy, a lot of students find their self-esteem and family here and they find a new meaning in their lives. It’s an honor to be a part of someone’s success story.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of On the Record. 

‘We can learn a lot from each other’


WCC student Davon Shackleford climbs the Great Wall of China during an International Scholar Laureate Program visit to the country. (Courtesy Photo)

Trip to China inspires WCC student pursuing a career in medicine

“It was nice being the foreigner for once,” said Washtenaw Community College student Davon Shackleford about his recent, 12-day trip to China.

Last month, Shackleford traveled to Xi’an, Shanghai and Beijing, where he climbed the Great Wall of China, making it all the way to the top.

Shackleford’s recent adventure may sound like a classic “no work, all play” trip. But it was much more. He was among a select number of students who were part of the International Scholar Laureate Program (ISLP). According to ISLP’s website, the program gives college students the opportunity to gain international perspectives on their future careers.

The students were separated by career fields. Because Shackleford aspires to become a physician, his specific focus was on the Medicine & Science Delegation. He learned about China’s health care system by visiting hospitals, clinics and universities and meeting and working with Chinese doctors, practitioners and administrators.

“The world is becoming increasingly globalized and we can learn a lot from each other,” Shackleford said. “Having cultural competency in the health care field is very important.”

Shackleford was nominated for the program by WCC’s chapter of Phi Kappa Theta —an honor society for community college students who have achieved academic success—where he also serves as president. Not one to pass up once-in-a-lifetime opportunities such as this one, Shackleford immediately accepted, but there was one problem: choosing between China and Australia.

Ultimately, Shackleford decided on China because “it was an ancient civilization and we hear about China in the news often, but I wanted go there myself and see it with my own eyes.”

By doing so, he forged connections and friendships with students from other parts of the country and world, including California and Washington, D.C. and was wowed when a student from South Africa showed him the selfie she had taken with a cheetah.

“I was surrounded by top students and that was a unique experience within itself,” Shackleford said. “To be surrounded by so much talent was inspiring.”

But he also made time to socialize with the locals and since one of the best ways to experience a city is through its food, that meant eating fried snake.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Shackleford said.

While he understands that not everyone is adventurous enough to eat fried snake, he recommends that other students seek out opportunities to travel abroad. Shackleford’s trip to China marks his first international experience.

“Don’t think you’re limited just because you’re at a community college,” he said.

The summer marks Shackleford’s final semester at the college. This fall, he transfers to the University of Michigan, but in typical Davon Shackleford fashion, he will first complete a research co-op at U-M this summer.

Being from a small town in South Carolina, Shackleford never thought he would see Washington D.C., let alone China, but says he’s grateful for all the wonderful opportunities the college affords its students.

Last summer, as a member of the WCC Political Science Club, Shackleford traveled to D.C., where he met Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and visited the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

“WCC opened doors for me that would not have been possible otherwise,” he said. “Finding WCC is the best thing that could have happened to me.”

For more information about the International Scholar Laureate Program, visit

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of On the Record. 

Iron workers back on campus


Ambra Melendez of Local 361 in New York, NY., goes through a training session during last summer’s event at WCC. (Photo by Kimberly A. Borecki-Troiano)

For the seventh consecutive year, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Training program will be held at Washtenaw Community College from July 18-22.

Nearly 800 instructors, contractors, business managers, business agents, and owners from the U.S. and Canada attended last year and just as many are expected to attend this summer.

Ironworker attendees receive training in welding, structural steel erection, architectural and ornamental ironwork, concrete reinforcement, rigging and machinery moving and installation, as well as blueprint reading, computer skills and a number of other trade-related subjects.

“Ensuring that we have the most qualified instructors will help us continue to meet the needs of the construction industry and allow us to maintain our reputation as the most skilled and highly trained workforce in the industry,” said Ironworkers International General President Eric Dean.

Additionally, several new and upgraded courses will be offered this year, including “Bar Joists, Decking, and Erection Drawings,” “Installing Metal Roof Systems,” “Contracting Business Fundamentals,” and “Construction Profitability.”

In March 2015, WCC and the Iron Workers Union signed a five-year contract extension. Besides providing valuable training, the trade union’s annual event generates nearly $5 million in economic impact into Washtenaw County.

The Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau provides hospitality services and events for the attendees during their stay.

“The Washtenaw County CVB and Washtenaw Community College are incredibly fortunate to find such amazing partners in the Ironworkers,” said Mary Kerr, Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO. “They return to our community because they know they are appreciated and that our partnership fosters a climate, which produces broad economic success for our community and ensures that their workforce is well prepared for the future.

“When the Ironworkers recently committed to returning to WCC for years to come, it was a testament of the training opportunities available at WCC and the amazing job done by all.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of On the Record.


Shawn BlanchardSex, money, cars, girls and clothes used to be all that motivated Shawn Blanchard, a Detroit city official and author of the new book, How ‘Bout that for a Crack Baby: Keys to Mentorship and Success.

The title of Blanchard’s memoir says a lot, but there’s more than meets the eye for this modern-day Renaissance man, who once sought out to become a drug lord.

A Detroit native, Blanchard was born with crack cocaine in his system. The 33-year-old says his mother was a “professional shoplifter.” His father? Hardly in the picture. As a result, Blanchard lived with his grandmother, who instilled in him the value of education. But when his grandmother died, Blanchard had to raise himself and his younger brother at the tender age of 12.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Blanchard says. “Going through situations of loss at such a young age can make you become numb to the pain.”

Almost immediately following his grandmother’s death, Blanchard started selling drugs. But the harsh reality of street life soon set in when his older brother was murdered in a drug transaction.

“I didn’t have anyone I cared to look up to,” Blanchard says. “I looked to the black market because it was more of a tangible measure of success. It was appealing at the time.”

Read the rest of my story for Jet Magazine [here]. 

Living out loud

Sesi Spring 2016Keke Palmer surprised more than a few fans last year with her “I Don’t Belong To You” video. (If you haven’t seen it yet, she leaves her boyfriend for another girl.) The “Scream Queens” star took it one step further when she came out as sexually fluid soon after. Then, in December, Amandla Stenberg came out as bisexual via Snapchat. While Keeks and Amandla deserve major props for what they’ve done, it’s not always easy for Black girls to come out, and as a result, Black LGBT+ youth are at higher risk of being homeless, being harassed, and committing suicide. Find out how one girl, though, is defying the odds and living by her own rules.

Morgan Butler has struggled with her sexuality for years. It didn’t help that she was outed by a classmate in the seventh grade. “Being outed was definitely a weird experience,” says the 19-year-old college freshman from Springfield, Virginia. “I wasn’t necessarily mad, more like embarrassed, for both her and myself. I was embarrassed for her because she was so insecure she felt like she had to try and invalidate my own identity. And I was embarrassed for myself because I was lowkey ashamed of my sexuality.” Since then, Morgan has learned to love all parts of her identity — but discovering exactly what that meant for her took a little time.

“I’ve been queer since middle school, though I didn’t exactly know what to call it,” Morgan says. “After fluctuating between identifying as a lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual, I settled on queer because I feel like it’s more inclusive.”

Confused about what all of that even means? Let’s break it on down: So, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. The “+”? That’s just an easy way to cover everyone else who’s not heterosexual, including pansexual, asexual, demi-gender, and queer, which is a term for people who feel that LGBT is too confining.

And while Morgan is all self-love all the time now, she does admit that there’ve been times when she’s felt depressed and hopeless because of her sexuality. Her squad reps hard for her, though, so she considers herself lucky because she knows that’s not the case for many others. “I had a community of people who were super accepting and supportive, so I was able to work through it,” she says. “It’s really sad knowing that our world is so judgmental that people feel like their identities aren’t valid. It really sucks.”

Read the rest of my feature for Sesi magazine’s spring 2016 issue [here]. Subscribe to Sesi magazine on

Women helping women


2016 Women’s Council Luncheon honorees (from left) Lakshmi Narayana, current Ann Arbor Thrift Shop board president; Amy Seetoo, president of the American Association of University Women, Ann Arbor Branch; and Marnie Leavitt, executive director of the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan. (Photo by Steve Kuzma)

Inspiring doesn’t begin to describe the atmosphere at the 19th annual Women’s Council luncheon held at Washtenaw Community College last month.

There was plenty of laughter and gratitude to go around and some tears were shed, but the message was clear: When women help each other, magic happens.

The Women’s Council of the WCC Foundation provides students with funds needed to pursue their education, with more than $485,000 raised over the years for scholarships, grant funding for childcare, books, and emergency needs.

“Receiving a scholarship gave me confidence,” said WCC student Shelley Quiroz, who is working toward a nursing degree with plans to transfer to Eastern Michigan University in fall 2018. “It gave me something to fall back on when times were hard. To know and see that so many people care about your success is wonderful and I’m incredibly grateful.”

The annual luncheon also salutes successful women who lend their leadership to local organizations and make a difference in their communities. This year’s honorees were: Marnie Leavitt, executive director of the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan; Lakshmi Narayana, current Ann Arbor Thrift Shop board president; and Amy Seetoo, president of the American Association of University Women, Ann Arbor Branch.

Dr. Rita Fields, executive vice president at Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit and associate professor of management in the School of Business at Madonna University, served as guest speaker.

During her remarks, Fields shared her story of overcoming monumental personal challenges on her long journey to finding joy and success.

“As dark and scary as those moments were, I’m grateful for them because they made me into the woman I am today,” Fields said. “As women, we need to be honest about our struggles and stories because when we do that, we can better serve each other.”

To make a gift, visit

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of On the Record.

New WCC chief of staff has strong ties to college


Monique James, above, was named Chief of Staff to WCC President Dr. Rose B. Bellanca. (Photo by Jessica Bibbee)

Monique James started her journey at Washtenaw Community College eight years ago as a part-time faculty member who taught non-credit classes. Her role at the college has evolved significantly since then.

Prior to being named Chief of Staff to WCC President Dr. Rose B. Bellanca recently, James was executive director of the Economic and Community Development division. There, she worked to establish connections with Washtenaw County programs, services and resources to help promote the college as a premier provider for post-secondary and continuous education.

James holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications from Grand State Valley University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.

“The skills I acquired from being a social worker allow me to further advocate the great work WCC does, while carrying out the mission and vison of the college,” she said. “The full impact WCC has on its students and the community at large is incredible.”

Additionally, James brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in non-profit and community college administration, multicultural programming, and strategic planning.

In her new role as Chief of Staff, James serves as a liaison with workgroups to support the administration and encourage alignment with annual and multi-year initiatives. She also will work to expand and enhance programming efforts to support student recruitment, retention and success.

James has made a name for herself on campus and throughout the community.

Under James’ leadership, WCC’s Lifelong Learning department—known today as the Economic and Community Development division—received a Special Project Award from the Michigan Association of Continuing Education and Training in 2010.

“I have a lifelong connection to WCC and the community,” she said. “I have fond memories of attending special events at the Morris Lawrence building long before working at the college. So, to see it thrive is rewarding. Every day is an experience and I feel like I’m contributing something that will help make WCC a more conducive and inclusive environment for student success.”

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of On the Record.

Running with purpose


WCC Dean of Arts and Sciences Kristin Good crosses the finish line at the Boston Marathon. (Photo by

WCC dean, faculty member create scholarship fund to commemorate participating in Boston Marathon

For Kristin Good, dean of Arts and Sciences at Washtenaw Community College, and WCC math faculty member Bobby Klemmer, running in the 120th annual Boston Marathon proved to be just as much of a mental test as a physical one.

“It’s amazing to see what your body and brain can do together,” Good said.

Runners must qualify to participate in the Boston Marathon, with each age group required to complete a specific time the previous year. Both Good and Klemmer achieved these times.

As the marathon approached, they started a process known as “tapering,” where one gradually decreases the amount of exercise in the weeks leading up to the big day. Tapering is crucial for runners because the body needs to rest in order to reach its optimal performance.

And it seems to have paid off because Good and Klemmer finished with solid times. Good came in at three hours, 51 minutes and 47 seconds and Klemmer finished in 3:31:37. Both agree that running for some-thing greater than themselves was far more rewarding.

To commemorate their participation in this year’s Boston Marathon, Good and Klemmer are raising money for the STRIVE (strength, trust, resilience, inspiration, vision, and endurance) for Success endowment. STRIVE for Success will help high school students attend WCC. The plan is to raise $10,000 over the next three years.


WCC math faculty member Bobby Klemmer with family and friends after completing the Boston Marathon. (Photo Courtesy of Bobby Klemmer)

“In some ways, our students are running marathons because they’re juggling classes, work, internships, extracurricular activities, and families in some cases,” said Good, who also serves on the WCC Foundation Board of Directors. “The Boston Marathon is just under four hours, whereas the students’ marathons are stretched out over several years— and the finish line is the moment they walk across the stage with their degrees.”

Donations of any value are being accepted and in the upcoming months, there will be updates on the progress of the scholarships via email and social media.

“Many of our students’ ‘races’ are far more grueling and obstacle-filled than any run could ever be,” Klemmer said. “I view teaching as a true privilege, and I am convinced that my students have taught me just as much as I have taught them. I am proudly running and creating this endowment to honor them.”

To support STRIVE for Success, visit Enter “STRIVE for Success Award” upon making your gift.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of On the Record.