Alex’s Great State Race Turning rivals into allies

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One word comes to mind when thinking about Michigan State University (MSU) and University of Michigan (U-M): rivalry. Football teams and fans from both institutions have clashed ever since the first head-to-head football game in 1898; each time the Spartans and Wolverines meet, tension and opposition is felt by all.

But on Oct. 6, 2017, a new tradition of camaraderie continues where you might not expect it. MSU and U-M will come together to raise awareness for student disability services.

Originating in 2014, Alex’s Great State Race (AGSR) is an annual event that happens the day before the big MSU vs. U-M football game. Starting at dawn, Army ROTC cadets run the game ball from the visiting team’s school to the home team’s school. With the Spartans playing on Wolverine turf this year, cadets will run from the beloved Sparty statue to U-M’s Diag — a total of 64 miles.

Michael Hudson, director of the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD), feels inspired by the event every year.

“The race unifies many during a week of rivalry,” he said. “We are honored to partner with many to center on the gifts each university brings to our state.”

Alex Powell

Alex Powell

AGSR is named after Alex Powell, an MSU student who struggled and lost his battle with cancer. A Lansing native, Powell had a lifelong dream of being a Spartan, and a cancer diagnosis during his senior year of high school made his dream seem out of reach.

After Powell was accepted to MSU, the RCPD stepped in. Before he even started his freshman year, the RCPD assisted in planning around classes and cancer treatment. Shani Feyen, former ability access specialist at the RCPD, kept in touch with Powell’s parents throughout his freshman year with updates on his struggles and triumphs as a college student.

After Powell passed away in 2011, his parents and friends planned to honor his life through a community event. Instead of focusing on only Powell’s school and his accommodations, his parents wanted to take it a step further.

While Powell received treatment at U-M Hospital, he became close with another cancer patient, Will*. He was the same age as Powell and planned to attend U-M while also receiving treatment for the same cancer.

The stress of fall classes settled in for both freshmen, especially Will. While Powell received organized accommodations through the RCPD, Will struggled to keep up by himself at U-M. He had difficulty working around exams and chemo, let alone receiving much-deserved accommodations.

Many students aren’t aware that U-M has their own office called Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), which offers the same type of assistance as the RCPD; this inspired the idea to raise awareness for both
disability programs.

“Many students from both institutions don’t know of the accommodations they have access to,” said Juliana Powell, Alex Powell’s mother. “Including SSD in the AGSR event would raise awareness and help students at U-M, like Will.”

Staff from the RCPD and SSD teamed up with Powell’s parents to create a positive event that would bring the rival schools together. They developed what is now Alex’s Great State Race.

Jill Rice, an SSD staff member, participates in AGSR’s year-round committee and has formed close bonds with fellow members.

“We’re all different people striving for the same goal, no matter which team we root for,” Rice said.

“To me, it’s great that the Powells wanted to help both programs,” Rice said. “My favorite part about the event is telling people about it; they’re always so surprised to learn about [MSU and U-M’s] partnership.”

Two notable community members will join the ROTC runners: Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein. If you’re visiting Ann Arbor on Oct. 6, stop by U-M’s Diag at noon and support the ROTC runners.