Alumni award winners continue to make marks as Lakers

The Alumni Association will honor four Lakers for their significant contributions to their communities or professions during Homecoming week.

Recipients are detailed below. The Distinguished Alumni, Young Alumni, Outstanding Staff and Outstanding Educator awards will be presented October 27. 

Shannon Cohen '00 & '11, Distinguished Alumni Award

The Distinguished Alumni Award is presented to an individual who excels in their chosen profession, whose accomplishments positively impact society and reflect favorably upon themselves, their community and Grand Valley.

Shannon Cohen, a first-generation college student, graduated in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in international relations, and in 2011 with a master's degree in public administration. As the founder and CEO of Shannon Cohen Inc., she develops customized emotional intelligence, equity and wellness trainings for organizations such as Procter & Gamble and Steelcase. 

Shannon Cohen standing outside in Black dress
Shannon Cohen will receive the Distinguished Alumni Award. Cohen is the founder and CEO of Shannon Cohen Inc.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

Her inspirational product line, Tough Skin, Soft Heart, features greeting cards that are available at retailers nationwide, including Target and Meijer. This year she partnered with GVSU's Alumni Supplier Diversity Program to bring her Hope-on-the-go products to the GVSU Laker Store. Cohen is also the founder of the global Rockstar Woman Brunch Experience, serving thousands of women annually.

In 2023, Cohen received the "Woman of Courage" award from Michigan Women Forward. In 2022, she was named "Brilliant Woman of the Year" by West Michigan Woman Magazine. Cohen serves on the board of directors for the Corewell Health Foundation, Grand Rapids Economic Club, GVSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and GROW.

Nicki Bonczyk '14, Young Alumni Award

The Young Alumni Award is presented to a recent graduate who is making outstanding contributions to society, and whose accomplishments and career reflect favorably upon themselves, their community and Grand Valley.

Nicki Bonczyk is an engineering onboarding lead at JR Automation, where she oversees the onboarding and training experience for JR's 11 North American locations. 

She graduated in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in product design and manufacturing and began working at JR through the GVSU co-op education program. In her role at JR, Bonczyk connects with current GVSU students and alumni and supports them on their engineering journeys.

Nicki Bonczyk posing in a hallway in a blue dress
Nicki Bonczyk will receive the Young Alumni Award. Bonczyk is an engineering onboarding lead at JR Automation and active in FIRST Robotics.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

Since 2019, she has served as the event and volunteer coordinator for FIRST Robotics events at GVSU, where she recruits dozens of fellow graduates to volunteer for the program. In 2017, she was a STEP Ahead Award National Honoree for Outstanding Female in the field of manufacturing. Bonczyk also volunteers with the Grand Haven Musical Fountain and the American Cancer Society by organizing Relay For Life and the West Michigan Farm to Table events.

Chris Barbee '88, Outstanding Staff Award

The Outstanding Staff Award is presented to a Grand Valley State University staff member who has had a significant impact on the life and careers of alumni. 

Chris Barbee graduated with a bachelors degree in broadcasting in 1988. He started his career at West Michigan Public Broadcasting as a news and sports reporter for WGVU-AM/FM and as a producer/host of Grand Valley Sports for WGVU-WGVK-TV. In 1994, he took a new role as press secretary to U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers in Washington, D.C. In 2002, Barbee returned to Grand Valley to serve as the director of GVSU Alumni Relations. 

Chris Barbee posing in blue shirt
Chris Barbee will receive the Outstanding Staff Award. Barbee is the former director of Alumni Relations and now works as the director of development at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Image credit - Edgar Marcano

During two decades as director, Barbee oversaw the development of innovative alumni events and programs including, "Paving the Way for Future Generations: Stories of African Americans Who Were Firsts at Grand Valley," which won an award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Barbee is the director of development at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Neal Buckwalter, Outstanding Educator Award

The Outstanding Educator Award is presented to a faculty member who has had a significant impact on the lives and careers of alumni.

Neal Buckwalter, associate professor of public administration, has a passion for connecting students with learning experiences and opportunities to create brighter futures for themselves, their families and their communities. Buckwalter graduated from Brigham Young University in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and in 2004 with a master of public administration degree. After working in local government administration, he earned a doctoral degree in public affairs from Indiana University.

Neal Buckwalter portrait taken outside, he is wearing a blue shirt
Neal Buckwalter, associate professor of public administration, will receive the Outstanding Educator Award from the Alumni Association.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

Buckwalter joined Grand Valley's faculty in 2012. He serves as the director of the Master of Public Administration program and the faculty advisor for the GVSU International City/County Management Association student chapter, an award-winning student-run organization that connects participants to professional opportunities in local government. 

Buckwalter serves as president of the Grand Rapids Michigan Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He volunteered for five years as a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America.


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