Success Stories

Spreading a message of hope

Ben Symko

Once a high school dropout who had more than a few run-ins with the law, Ben Symko has spent nearly half of his life helping others in trouble and building a successful law career. In June he was honored with a Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award, presented at the 72nd annual black-tie awards ceremony in New Orleans.

The TOYA program is one of the oldest and most prestigious recognition programs in America. Annually since 1938, The United States Jaycees has sought out the 10 young men and, since 1985, women who best exemplify the finest attributes of America's youthful achievers, ranging from age 18-40. Of the more than 600 young Americans honored since its inception, many were recognized before the achievements for which they are now known, including Gerald R. Ford, Howard Hughes, Nelson Rockefeller and Christopher Reeve.

Symko's early life included a "loss of hope" when, at the age of 14, his parents divorced. "For three years I was out of control, getting into trouble and eventually was sent to a spiritual boot camp in Florida," said Symko. "It was a 3-month period of laboring, fasting and praying, that my internal barometer told me could turn my life around."

It was there that Symko met Sister Elvira, who convinced him to serve as a Catholic missionary in Italy for one year. He worked with wayward youth to build dorms and chapels, and even the crucifix and rosaries they prayed with. That led to spending another four years working in the Dominican Republic, where he learned that "by helping others, you are also helping yourself." It was there that he met benefactor Bren Simon who saw promise in Symko and provided funding for his education.

Symko graduated magna cum laude from Grand Valley in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and a minor in philosophy. "I am eternally grateful to Dean Antczak, Maria Cimitile, Maureen Wolverton and Judy Whipps as mentors in my career at Grand Valley," he said.

Symko also graduated with high honors from Thomas Cooley Law School, and has held positions at the Kent County Office of the Defender, which provides counsel for indigent and low-income clients, and with the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project, among others. As an attorney with Jensen & DeHaan, Symko continues to spread a message of hope.

"Life is magical, whether good or bad; doors will open if you make the best of your situation," said Symko, who also teaches liberal studies as an adjunct professor at Grand Valley. "Teaching has been a passion of mine since my tenure in the Dominican Republic, working with street kids. Today, when I walk on the Allendale Campus, I can't help but remember that I worked one hot summer helping to lay the cement near the carillion tower. I'm honored to teach where I began a crucial chapter in my life's journey."

by Mary Isca Pirkola

This story was filed with the tags: Undergraduate Alumni