Caledonia — On a Zoom call from her home in Caledonia, Zoey Zupin reflected on virtual college courses at Michigan State University, graduating high school during a global pandemic and the best coffee shops in Grand Rapids and East Lansing.
“I wrote a list of non-chain coffee shops to try around East Lansing and Grand Rapids,” Zoey said. “I just love the atmosphere of smaller coffee shops.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic rocking the end of her senior year at Caledonia High School, Zoey received her diploma through a car window during a “drive-by” graduation. She is now finishing her first year at college, without ever having set foot in a classroom on campus for in-person instruction.
Zoey said her decision to study agriculture education at MSU was greatly influenced by her love for education and involvement in the Future Farmers of America, a national youth organization aimed at preparing members for leadership and careers in science, business and education.
“I’ve pretty much known my entire life I wanted to be a teacher,” Zoey said. “I even wrote in my kindergarten time capsule that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I always came back to teaching. The hardest part was deciding what subject I wanted to teach.”
After first planning to pursue special education at Central Michigan University, Zoey’s passion for FFA steered her in a different direction.
“I loved FFA and really didn’t want to give it up,” Zoey said.
John Schut, Zoey’s high school agriscience teacher and FFA adviser, described her as energetic and passionate.
“She is very focused on becoming a teacher,” Schut said. “She has the interpersonal skills, is not afraid to ask questions or learn new things and I appreciated that about her as a student.”
Even during a year of social distancing and limited connections, Zoey still helped out with FFA over Zoom or in person at outdoor events after starting college, Schut said.
She was recognized in March for participating in the 2021 Michigan FFA Proficiency Program in the area of agricultural education for teaching in elementary programs and promoting agricultural literacy.
The FFA proficiency program recognizes members at local, state and national levels who show exceptional accomplishments and excellence in career development through a supervised agricultural experience.
“While attending the FFA Washington Leadership Conference the summer before my senior year of high school, I developed a ‘living to serve’ plan, where students use their passions to give back to their community,” Zoey said.
A Passion for Reading
Already a passionate reader and dedicated to serving her community, she focused on literacy and education.
“During my junior year, I wrote a paper about low literacy rates in America and how poverty correlates to literacy,” she explained. “After that, I became super passionate about kids learning to read.”
Zoey also credits her parents for instilling the importance of reading and education.
“I was fortunate that my family valued education, and that having a book to read was never a problem. I’m privileged to have an education and access to books.”
Zoey’s mom, Nanje Zupin, who also is a Dutton Elementary librarian, suggested a service project donating used books to students there, knowing there were those who would benefit from having books.
“Reading does so much for your imagination and creativity,” Zoey said, “When kids read books, they are introduced to the world and the path to becoming future leaders.”
She reached out to Caledonia FFA alumni, her church, family and friends for donations. She also purchased some with her own money.
After raising close to $100 in donations from the Dutton Elementary Scholastic Book Fair, Zoey went to the Scholastic Book warehouse in Caledonia to pick out books for the students.
“We were supposed to have a party for the students receiving the donated books in Dutton’s library on March 13, 2020, but then schools shut down and it didn’t happen.”
Almost a year later, in January, Zoey filled 28 canvas bags and surprised 28 students at Dutton.
“We couldn’t believe how many (bags) she was able to put together from book donations, monetary donations and using her own money,” Zoey’s mom said.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Zoey was unable to give the students their books in person at school, so her mom delivered the books and letter to recipients.
“When I gave the students their bags of books, I explained to them that Zoey had raised money as part of an FFA project and their expressions were priceless, especially when they understood the books were theirs to keep,” Zupin said. “My heart was filled with so much joy and my eyes teary because their faces just lit up when they looked into the bags and saw all of the books they were receiving.”
Once a Leader, Always a Leader
As she looks forward to three more years of college and one additional year of student teaching, Zoey is optimistic about the future of education and ready to do the work.
“I came out of that womb ready to work; my parents raised me for that,” she said. “After I’m done with school, I would love to return to Caledonia or somewhere on the west side (of the state) to teach.”
Zoey jokingly referred to herself as the “alumni who never left” and that one day, she may take Schut’s place as the agriscience teacher.
“I hope she achieves her goal in becoming a teacher, and coming back to serve her own school is very commendable,” Schut said. “It’s an honor to serve your home community.”