Northern Michigan University alumna Megan Persons is one of the Grand Rapids Business Journal's “40 Under 40” award recipients. The annual awards program, celebrating its 20th year, honors dynamic young professionals who have achieved personal success and make significant civic contributions to West Michigan. Persons graduated in 2012 with a major in secondary education/history and a minor in gender studies. She is the enrollment equity coordinator for Grand Rapids Public Schools.
On an NMU blog post, she said that her job involves coordinating enrollment initiatives for 40 schools in one of the largest and most diverse school districts in Michigan, and ensuring that all aspects of the enrollment process are equitable and efficient. She also supports neighborhood school programs and identifies and eliminates barriers to access so that all children have room.
“Creating safe, inclusive spaces for people to belong has been the single greatest mission of my work,” Persons said in a Grand Rapids Business Journal (GRBJ) profile story. “In all roles personal and professional, it is my greatest desire, responsibility and gift to ‘pull up a chair' or, when there simply isn't any more room, build a bigger table.”
In addition to her work in educational equity, Persons also co-founded and facilitates the LGBTQIA+ Advisory Committee for the Grand Rapids Public Schools, a group of professionals seeking to create and sustain safe, affirming spaces for LGBTQIA+ students and staff.
It was during her freshman year in college that Persons said she first realized she was gay. She largely credits her NMU experience for helping her to live proudly as a queer leader in the Grand Rapids community.
“I was given countless opportunities to be a leader, to advocate for myself and others in the classroom and across campus,” she wrote on the NMU blog. “I was encouraged to start new student organizations, work collaboratively with others, and create justice-oriented programs that invited people to share their talents and be themselves. At NMU, I had professors who made sure I saw myself in the history and literature of their courses, challenging students to reflect on—and learn from—their own experiences and each other. At NMU I learned not only how to challenge myself, but how to truly be myself. Because at Northern, I belonged.”
In her previous roles as a classroom teacher and middle school administrator, she created safe spaces for people to learn and grow. In her current position, she ensures all students have equitable access to safe, inclusive learning environments. And in her volunteer positions with community organizations throughout Grand Rapids, she strives to provide opportunities for others to see and believe in themselves.
“For the entirety of my decade-long career in education, I have remained committed to the same central tenet: make room,” Persons said in the GRBJ article. “The most prosperous environments are those that allow people to show up, take root and grow freely. I believe that as a community we rise and fall together, so I make it my daily mission to not only elevate myself, but elevate the students, staff and system around me.
As an NMU student, Persons said she learned how to balance competing priorities. She carried a full course load, remained involved with student organizations, and maintained on-campus employment—all while working with people of different ideological backgrounds. She said she learned quickly how to manage time and work in partnership with people—skills that continue to serve her well in her professional life.
Two English Department professors were “tremendously influential” to Persons. She said Kia Jane Richmond modeled how to be a compassionate, student-centered educator who cares deeply about her content and her students simultaneously. And Lesley Larkin challenged Persons academically and philosophically, helping her shape the way she centers equity in all things personal and professional.
“Finding organizations, projects, and professional relationships that made me feel safe changed the way I experienced Northern,” Persons wrote. “During a time ripe with self-discovery and personal growth, I felt supported and empowered to be myself at NMU. This sense of belonging has been foundational for me as a person and as a professional. All students—all people—thrive when they feel that.”
Persons and the other “40 Under 40” award winners were honored at a party thrown by the Grand Rapids Business Journal on Oct. 25.