Two years ago, Spencer Mandzak attended an ice cream social for Miami University’s office of ASPIRE and shook hands with the university’s President Greg Crawford. That simple gesture confirmed to Mandzak that he was in the right place.
“There are students that go here for years without meeting the president,” Mandzak said. “There’s professors here who’ve never met the president, so being able to say ‘Yeah, before my first day I got to meet the president and say hi to him,’ that’s super cool.”
Mandzak’s involvement through the office of ASPIRE has allowed him many opportunities to meet notable figures within the university, the City of Oxford, the state of Ohio and Washington D.C.
ASPIRE stands for advancing strategies, partnerships, institutional relations and the economy. The office developed in August 2020 from the university’s original institutional relations branch, and now ASPIRE offers interdisciplinary networking opportunities for students, businesses and the community.
“We’re the external relations for the university, not exclusively but primarily, so we do community relations, government relations, corporate outreach and entrepreneurship,” Randi Thomas, the vice president of ASPIRE, said.
Thomas, a Miami alumnus, has been the director of government relations at the university since 1999, but his passion for civic engagement developed long before that.
“Even when I was an undergrad, I was involved in government on campus here at Miami,” Thomas said.
Through the office of ASPIRE, Thomas wants to give students that same opportunity.
Under the institutional relations component of the office, Thomas and the staff within ASPIRE advocate on behalf of higher education in legislation at all three levels of government: local, state and federal.
“If it impacts Oxford, ultimately it’s probably going to have a blowback on the university as well,” said Thomas, who is a regular attendee at the Butler County Commissioners meetings.
Nicole Hoyer, the assistant director of government relations and a Miami alumna, works out of the statehouse in Columbus to track legislation in the House and Senate.
Thomas said the team also works closely with the state’s Inter-University Council, an association of Ohio’s public universities that works to improve the quality of public higher education, and the American Association of Public Land Grant Universities, a larger advocacy group for public research universities across the country.
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In addition to government relations, the ASPIRE office offers a variety of programs that promote innovation and accessibility to a college degree.
The office collaborates with the university’s regional campuses to offer the Work+ program, which helps students earn a degree while working a part-time job with a local business and pays for their tuition. It also offers the Early College Academy for high school students to earn an associates degree at no cost to them, and the office’s newest project was the Fisher Innovation College@Elm Center in Oxford which promotes collaboration between private and public entities.
The College@Elm was unveiled in April, but Thomas’s long-term goal for the project is to improve Oxford’s economy and provide a welcoming atmosphere for anyone to collaborate.
“It’s aimed at students, faculty, staff, residents in the community,” Thomas said. “Folks that have an idea they are interested in … or they want to be a part of a team that is dealing with startups or other businesses that are there, they have a space, that’s what takes place there.”
Mandzak said the countless opportunities within ASPIRE are what keeps him involved within the office.
“What I really love about the office of ASPIRE, the government relations network, everything else this office does, is that it provides real-world experience for whatever you want,” Mandzak said.
Mandzak started as an intern in the office, then moved up to a legislative director and is now one of the Deputy Chiefs of Staff, where he is working to build an internship structure similar to ASPIRE for the Fisher Innovation College@Elm Center.
Evelyn Morrison, a junior public administration and sustainability major, is the other Deputy Chief of Staff. She works closely with Thomas and Hoyer, completing tasks they delegate to her.
Morrison and Mandzak first learned about ASPIRE through an educational leadership class, EDL 110. The goal of the class is to find students an internship, whether it's within ASPIRE or a different organization.
Morrison said the goal of ASPIRE is not tied to one aspect of the office, but to be holistic leaders on campus and within the community.
“Government is in everything,” Morrison said. “It’s in economic development. It’s in external partnerships, so getting students involved in one part very easily translates to them getting involved in other aspects.”
For students interested in joining the office of ASPIRE, visit https://miamioh.edu/aspire/.