Alumni Profile

<< Back

Alumni Profile

From Winter 2012
Tiya Miles, natural scholar and genius; a social journalist to “like”; and other notable alumni.
By Danny LaChance




A Natural Scholar

Growing up in three households can be disorienting. It can also produce a genius. Such is the case with University of Michigan public historian Tiya Miles (Ph.D. ’00), who in September was named one of 22 recipients of the 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, an enviable distinction also known as a “genius grant.” The prestigious fellowships, which come with a $500,000 no-strings-attached cash award, are presented annually to individuals who have shown extraordinary creativity and dedication to their pursuits. Miles’s scholarship explores the complex interrelationships between African and Cherokee people living in colonial America. But her work also encompasses her passions for nature and education.


Tiya Miles with ECO Girls Thalia Epps, 8, and Camille Thomas, 7. Photograph by Dave Lewinski.
For Miles, nature was a comforting anchor as she moved between her mother’s, her father’s, and her grandmother’s homes while growing up in Cincinnati. In each place, she found a special spot of her own in the nearby outdoors: a meadow with robins’ eggshells for her to ponder, a honeysuckle with shade for her to sit and think, a garden in which to watch the world go by.
Miles is concerned, though, that many urban girls, and particularly girls of color, lack the connection with nature that was so crucial to her own development. For too many of them, the outdoors are either an alien experience or a source of illness: Poor communities of color disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental hazards that impact health, such as air pollution, landfills, incinerators, and toxic waste dumps.

So Miles, chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, has created a program for pre-adolescent girls called ECO Girls (Environmental and Cultural Opportunities for Girls). Detroit- and Ann Arbor–area girls meet on weekends with college student volunteers to expand their awareness of environmental issues, create art that links them personally to the natural world, and explore their culture’s particular historical relationships with the environment.

“I really want to bring together environmental and cultural education in order to broaden the girls’ horizons,” says Miles, who has twin daughters and a son. Gardening lessons, for instance, include the history of African American migration to Detroit in the early 20th century and a discussion of the agricultural practices that African Americans incorporated into urban gardens. “We’ll be trying to get them to recognize that who they are is connected to where they are and the natural world around them,” she says.

ECO Girls exemplifies Miles’s approach to scholarly life, which began when she was a graduate student in the University of Minnesota’s Department of American Studies. “I’ve always wanted to connect thought and values to action in the world,” she says. When she discovered that the curators of Diamond Hill, a 19th-century Cherokee plantation in Georgia that is now a historical site, were not telling visitors about the Cherokee family’s ownership of slaves, she worked with them to remedy the omission. Students in a public history course she later taught at the University of Michigan wrote papers about the plantation and compiled them into a booklet that is now available to visitors there. Miles’s 2010 book that tells the story of Diamond Hill, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, was awarded the 2011 National Council on Public History Book Award.

Miles envisions ECO Girls as a way to encourage and teach girls to become stakeholders in nature. There will be field trips, of course. And an Earth Day slumber party at the Leslie Science and Nature Center in Ann Arbor. One of Miles’s first assignments to program participants, though, blossoms directly from her own roots in Cincinnati: “Find a spot somewhere outdoors that is uniquely yours.”

To learn more about ECO Girls, go to www.environmentforgirls.org. To view a video of Miles talking about her public history work, visit www.Minnesota Alumni.org/TiyaMiles.

—Danny LaChance

Merci Beaucoup, Monsieur Hicks
“I’m not a hero. I’m just one of the old GIs,” says Harold Hicks (B.S. ’41). The French Republic, however, begs to differ. In February

Harold Hicks stands next to a clock the commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division presented to its members. Photograph courtesy of the Darien News.
Hicks was one of 14 American World War II veterans the French government recognized by bestowing the Legion of Honor, its highest award. The Consul General of France in Atlanta—Hicks lives in Townsend, Georgia—presented the award as “an expression of France’s eternal gratitude for those who liberated it from oppression from 1944-45.”

After earning a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Hicks joined the Army. He participated in eight major battle campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France from 1941 to 1944, culminating in Hicks’s role helping to liberate the Dachau death camp. After leaving the armed services in 1946 with the rank of major, the Twin Cities native had a 40-year career with the Hercules Powder Company, whose plants he managed around the United States and Asia.
—Laura Weber

Rooted at Ground Zero
University of Minnesota civil engineering graduate Natalie Hammer (M.S. ’97) played a small but significant part in creating the National September 11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. The memorial was unveiled on September 11 of this year, the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center.


Natalie Hammer pictured with photographs of some of the equipment her company designed.
A key design element of the memorial is the urban forest of 400 mature swamp white oaks, each harvested from a 500-mile radius of the World Trade Center site or from the other locations impacted on 9/11. The oaks surround the two reflecting pools that sit in the footprints of the twin towers. The challenge facing designers of the memorial was how to transport the trees to the elevated memorial plaza. The trees were grown in large wooden planters and each tree, combined with its box and soil, can weigh up to 10 tons.

Enter HMR Supplies, the heavy equipment manufacturing company Hammer co-owns with Chris Holland. Based in Forest City, Iowa, the company designed the Straddle Mover, which was used to move and plant the trees. Officials with the memorial first approached the company for ideas in 2009 and again in 2010, but didn’t give the go-ahead until February 2011, just seven months prior to the dedication. Hammer says they had to move fast. “It was important for the equipment to be able to carry the tree in the center of all the axles, be capable of traversing sideways, and be able to negotiate openings on the surface of the plaza,” she says.

“We did it primarily because it was the 9/11 memorial,” Holland says. “Everybody put forth a lot of effort and had a lot of pride in what they were doing in order to get it done in time.”

To see the Straddle Mover in action, go to www.YouTube.com/HollandDollies.
 —L.W.

A Social Journalist to ‘Like’
In barely a year, Vadim Lavrusik (B.A. ’09) has gone from social media intern at the New York Times to working side-by-side with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

In April Lavrusik, former editor-in-chief and co-publisher of the Minnesota Daily, became manager of the journalist program at

Vadim Lavrusik
Facebook, an ambitious initiative that seeks to encourage journalists worldwide to use Facebook to find sources, interact with readers, and advance stories. Lavrusik’s job is to build tools and manage programs that help journalists do that—a sign the social media behemoth aims to move beyond its familiar social networking role to become a serious actor in the media ecosystem.

Lavrusik came to the United States at age 8 from his native Belarus and immersed himself in journalism immediately upon arriving at the University of Minnesota from Eden Prairie (Minnesota) High School. During his tenure at the Daily he oversaw redesign of the print edition and website and brought the publication deeper into the digital era—with blogs, multimedia, forums, Facebook, and Twitter—and graduated in four years, summa cum laude. Then it was off to New York, where he earned a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2010. He was also community manager and social media strategist at Mashable.com, a leading news site dedicated to covering digital culture.

In addition to his duties at Facebook, Lavrusik is an adjunct teacher of social media for journalists at Columbia. Journalism education will continue to be valuable in the digital era, he says. “Today, everyone is a reporter but not everyone is a journalist. Journalists are information engineers. They look at disparate pieces of information and construct an account that is a reflection of the closest thing to the truth as possible.

“My time at the University not only exposed to me to new career possibilities, but also prepared me with the skills I need to thrive in the workplace,” Lavrusik says. “It seems like it was yesterday that I was at the U, but at the same time with how fast the last few years have evolved in the [news] industry, it seems like another era.”
—L.W.

©2014 by the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.
The University of Minnesota Alumni Association is an equal opportunity educator and employer.