The University of Olivet to Honor Paula Cunningham, A Leader Despite Odds

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The University of Olivet’s 22nd annual Leadership for Individual and Social Responsibility Awards Dinner will be held Wednesday, May 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Country Club of Lansing. The 2018 honorees are leaders in their chosen professions and reflect the college’s vision of Education for Individual and Social Responsibility. Patricia Brumbaugh ’76, conductor of Northwestern Michigan College/Community Band and interim director of bands at Traverse City West Senior High School; Paula Cunningham, state director of AARP Michigan; and Barbara Fulton, Ph.D., director of community development at Hayes Green Beach Memorial Hospital, are celebrated for bettering the communities they live in and encouraging others to do the same.

A Trailblazer, A Giver and A Leader

Paula Cunningham is often described as a trailblazer, a giver and a leader. She is currently the state director of AARP Michigan, and is responsible for leading and directing the advocacy and community outreach work of AARP and its 1.4 million members in the state. Throughout her career, Paula has continuously paved new ground for women, especially women of color.

Paula served as the chief executive officer and president of Capitol National Bank for nine years prior to her appointment with AARP Michigan. She was the first woman, as well as the only African American female in the country, to be president and CEO of a majority owned bank. In addition, Paula spent 25 years at Lansing Community College, including six years as the president, the first woman to hold that position as well. Further, she was the also first African American female to chair the board of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Paula’s dedication to leadership is celebrated by many, and in 2013 she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Among many other awards, Paula also received the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce ATHENA Award, dedicated to honoring strong female leaders. Today, she diligently serves on a number of boards for non-profit organizations and is committed to helping others do their best in all aspects of life.

“Social responsibility is part of my definition of self,” Paula explained. “It has become as much a part of my DNA as my molecular genetics. Giving is its own motivation and its own reward. It has been said that no one ever becomes poor by giving, and I couldn’t agree more. My social responsibility has grown out of my discontent with the status quo when I have the ability to help make someone’s life a little better.”

Discovering the Leader Within

Paula credits an experience in the first grade in helping her realize the strong impact fierce leaders could have on another person. For her, the strong leaders were her parents.

“One day in the first grade, my teacher refused to give me a tissue when I had a runny nose,” Paula explained. “Instead, she told me to get a sheet of paper from the wastebasket if I needed to blow my nose. I refused and was sent to the office. My parents came to the school and met with the principal and the teacher. From that day to this one, I knew I had someone who supported me – my parents. I learned that day that no one could disrespect me without my permission. It was a valuable lesson for a first grader.”

Paula continued her education at Michigan State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in labor and industrial relations; however, she says giving back is simply a way of life, not a learned behavior. Paula added that there are many ways a person can give back, including financially or simply with time. She stressed responsible leaders must have values that cannot be compromised, a vision, great listening skills, respect for everyone, and the willingness to serve. Most importantly, leaders must be okay with failing, but persevere to reach their goals.

Leading the Future

In her current position, Paula is striving to provide retired persons with dignity and choices through quality education that lasts an entire lifetime. She believes all should be able to make informed decisions and to choose how they want to live.

In addition, she has played a large role helping the The University of Olivet Women’s Leadership Institute expand as a member of the advisory council, and the college recently announced the program will include the ATHENA International Girl’s Leadership Camp scheduled for June, setting up the next generation of women leaders for success.

Throughout her career, Paula has also used her experiences on the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce board as chair; Davenport University board of trustees; McLaren Health Systems executive committee; Michigan Association of United Ways board; Michigan Nonprofit Association executive committee; MiQuest board; and Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan as co-chair.

Paula said, “I don’t measure success. Every day I just do the best I can. Every day I pray that I can be a blessing to someone. Every day I keep trying. This award is a reflection of my life’s work and the journey I’ve been on. There are times when we are so busy moving forward, we don’t reflect on the journey. It reminds me that perhaps I’ve made a difference somewhere.”

For the future, Paula said she will continue to serve others in the Lansing community and beyond, living by her favorite Karen Ravn quote, “Only as high as I reach can I grow. Only as far as I seek can I go. Only as deep as I look can I see. Only as much as I dream can I be.”

Join the Celebration

Tickets to the Leadership for Individual and Social Responsibility Awards Dinner are $75, which includes a $40 tax deductible donation to The University of Olivet. For more information, contact Carol Flanigan, senior director of annual giving and donor services, at 269.749.7625 or cflanigan@uolivet.edu.


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