By Melanie Brender
It’s the start of Homecoming Weekend at Michigan State University, and that means a parade is about to begin.
Our very own Dean Long will be one of the judges for the float contest. Honors College students will represent five of the twelve members on the Homecoming Court. And at the front of the parade will be storied Spartan Molly Brennan, leading as the Grand Marshal.
Molly is known for her achievements as a Hall of Fame sprinter, Rhodes scholar, engineer, philanthropist, and multiple world record holder.
But this story isn’t about one Honors College alum—it’s about three.
A Family of Spartans
Molly’s younger son Sean always knew he wanted to go to MSU. While he was in high school, his future as a Spartan was the driver to study hard. He ended up graduating with just below a 4.0 GPA.
Now he works as an athletic trainer for the gymnastics team at North Carolina State.
Her older son Eamon wasn’t so sure MSU was the place for him. The school was in contention with the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Middlebury College in the UK.
“When he decided to make the tour at Michigan State, I called Bess German with the Honors College,” Molly said, “and she set up a phenomenal tour for Eamon.”
Walking through campus, Eamon was surprised how often his tour guide Liz kept bumping into people she knew. It made the huge campus feel small and personal. MSU also provided flexibility for his desired major that other places did not.
He would be able to approach environmental studies from the focal lens of science, policy, or even engineering. “He could explore it and where it took him,” Molly said. “He didn’t have to compromise and take a degree that maybe wasn’t in the area that he wanted.”
Both Sean and Eamon graduated MSU as members of the Honors College, just like their mother before them.
“I have a profound love for Michigan State,” Molly said. As a high school student, Northwestern and the University of Michigan were also highly recruiting her. She knew she wanted to go somewhere that was great for both computer engineering and athletics.
When she chose the green and white, there was no looking back. And that decision led to a transformation.
“Coming into this university, I was all-state,” Molly said of her sprint accolades. “I held a state record. I left with a world record. And Big Ten records.”
She also came in for engineering, and went on to become a member of the Sunraycer solar car, set Guinness World Records, and get others interested in her field.
She realized what a gift her athletic scholarship was, and how it allowed her to openly explore her interests. Molly credits the Honors College to expanding the scope of this exploration. As an honors student, she had the flexibility to pursue a second degree in Humanities while continuing her Engineering coursework. She was able to learn from Andrew Young—U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—and take a graduate-level course in AI as an undergrad.
“I want students to have that same opportunity to pursue their passions,” Molly said. “By giving back, you are enabling many students that might not have that same opportunity.”
The Lightbulb Moment
Molly knew the power of her transformative experience at MSU. But long after her years as a student, another transformation occurred.
Her son Eamon discovered sustainability, and that became his focus within environmental studies. “Learning more and more about sustainability through Eamon’s eyes as we talked about things,” Molly said, “the lightbulb went on for me.”
“It just occurred to me that really everything we do needs to be sustainable,” Molly said, as she recalled her days on the track. Just like in a distance race, if you go out too hard, you’ll fade at the end.
She and her husband Bill wanted to do something to help future students at several educational institutions. They ultimately created the Molly Brennan and William Devlin Sustainability Endowment thanks to Eamon.
“He completely opened my eyes to this field,” Molly said. “I felt we needed to have one of those paradigm shifts in education, so that as kids are going through school, we approach the subject of sustainability in everything that we do—in our environment, in our resources, in our energy, in our money.”
The Ripple Effect
Parker Dennings is a proud member of the Honors College, a Professorial Assistant for James Madison College, and a student of Social Relations and Policy, as well as Human Geography. The funding he received from the Brennan Devlin endowment helped him conduct agricultural research under Professor Sandra Marquart-Pyatt. They conducted surveys with thousands of farmers in the Eastern Corn Belt.
“I can apply what I learned to policy,” Parker said, “but it’s also helped me with my research skills and being able to really dig into the weeds on specific issues—digging into the weeds on cover crops, digging into what it means to be a good farmer, and then applying that to what we’re seeing with the data.”
Jessica Davis is graduating in May with two degrees—one in Environmental Geography concentrated in Atmospheric and Climate Sciences, and another in Geographic Information Science. She will also have a minor in Social Science Quantitative Data Analytics.
She received scholarship funds from the endowment to work on a research project for the Michigan State Police. Under Dr. Jeffrey Andresen—an MSU professor and the State Climatologist for Michigan—Jessica worked with weather and climate data to update the Michigan Natural Hazards Index.
The data she collected, analyzed, and archived “is often referenced by policy makers and emergency response personnel to decide how to best allocate resources to prepare for different disasters,” Jessica said. “These decisions are vital to not only Michigan’s economy but to the safety of people in Michigan.”
“If could say one thing to Molly Brennan and William Devlin right now it would be: Your support has allowed me to focus more of my time gaining valuable research experience and knowledge in my field,” Jessica said. “I think it is wonderful that you are as passionate about sustainability as I am, and are willing to support the education of students that are pursuing research relating to sustainability.”
A Spartan Forever
The Molly Brennan and William Devlin Sustainability Endowment only scratches the surface of the couple’s continued involvement with MSU.
Molly has maintained ties to the MSU Honors College through Alumni Boards, Overseas Scholarship Selection Committees, and multiple endowments. She also continues to give back to the College of Engineering, the track and field program, and more. Molly has even volunteered her time to help the next generation of potential Rhodes scholars.
“It’s also a way to thank the university for what they’ve given to me, and I recognize it,” Molly said. “I recognize it in so many aspects of my life, the things I’ve been able to accomplish.”