There are many stellar students at Northern Michigan University, but perhaps few have climbed as high or extracted as much from their educational experience as Melissa Orzechowski of Grandville. Her long list of achievements and activities is exhausting to read, much less execute. Orzechowski will graduate Saturday with a triple major and was selected as outstanding graduating senior by two of those departments. She also received the 2016 award for outstanding student of any class standing from the NMU Board of Trustees.
The Presidential Scholars competition for academically talented high school seniors brought Orzechowski to NMU for the first time. She emerged with a full-ride Harden Scholarship and a great appreciation for the campus and nearby outdoor recreation opportunities.
“It was such a blessing to get that funding,” she said. “It allowed me to do so much because I haven’t had the financial pressure of student debt. I’ve been able to take more credits every semester and to get involved in research, student organizations, volunteering and study abroad. I likely would have come to Northern even if I hadn’t won a scholarship, but that really made a difference in freeing up time for me to get involved and pursue other opportunities.”
Orzechowski completed majors in environmental studies and sustainability, English writing and communication studies, with a Spanish minor. She participated in the NMU Honors Program, Student Leader Fellowship Program and Superior Edge. She coordinated the campus Volunteer Center and received the Michigan Campus Compact Newman Civic Fellows Award, which goes to select students nominated by university presidents for addressing the root causes of social issues.
She also engaged in undergraduate research as a Freshman Fellow and through the Anna and Rich Lundin Summer Research Fellowship.
“My Freshman Fellow research was with Alan Rebertus from biology on chaga, a burnt-looking fungus that grows on birch trees,” said Orzechowski. “Indigenous populations around the world use it for its medicinal properties and there’s a large concentration in the U.P.
“The Lundin fellowship was amazing as well. I’ve been an active rock climber since my first weekend at NMU, so I spent the summer writing a novella that revolved around rock climbing and the environment. I also went to Red River Gorge in Kentucky, the setting of the book. It was one of the more challenging projects in my time at Northern. I knew how to do scientific and social sciences research, but I had no idea how to approach a huge writing project. I learned a lot about the process and it’s still a work in progress.”
Fueled by her goals of helping people and the environment, Orzechowski helped to establish the Northern Climate Network and organize the People’s Climate March in Marquette. She interned at the Land Trust Alliance in the nation’s capital through the Washington Center and played a leadership role in No Impact Week, designed to address overconsumption. Orzechowski volunteered at the NMU Hoop House, led environmental education events for children and contributed to Marquette’s climbing community. She is an avid rock and ice climber, mountain biker and cross-country skier.
After graduation, Orzechowski plans to solidify her Spanish over the coming year. She will travel and volunteer in Central America before working as an au pair in Spain, where she had previously spent time on a study abroad program.
“A friend from NMU has been with a family and I’ll be taking over for her. Then I’m thinking of getting a doctorate in English literature. I’m not necessarily set on a single career. I might do environmental therapy or work for an environmental nonprofit for a few years, but I know I would enjoy being a college professor. I love analyzing literature. My roommates think I’m a total dork because I always saved that for last as a reward for doing my other homework.”
Orzechowski said she is grateful that Northern offered abundant opportunities for her to excel and challenge herself, whether it be in academics, research, community service or outdoor activities.