The Power of the Augustana Connection: University at the Core of Amolins’ Life Trajectory

By Keeley Meier '20 | November 28, 2023
Michael Amolins '07

Dr. Michael Amolins ‘07 made his first Augustana connection in third grade through his teacher, now Assistant Professor Emerita of Education Dr. Julie Ashworth ‘75 — although between learning the science of whales and apples, college wasn’t top of mind. 

Amolins’ second Augustana connection came at a time he needed it most.

Dr. Michael Amolins

“I came from fairly humble beginnings,” Amolins said. “My parents were awesome. They were amazing supporters and ready to do whatever they needed to ensure I had a path to college. Not having gone to college themselves, we looked to others for additional guidance on what those steps should look like.

“I was very fortunate that I had a handful of people around me that helped guide that process,” he continued. “A few of them were educators, one of which was Gene Erickson.”

Erickson, a 1955 Augustana graduate, was Amolins’ high school chemistry teacher. One day, Erickson asked Amolins if he had ever considered a career in chemistry. Erickson then connected him to Augustana where Amolins had a few friends in the music department. 

“Between the connections I made with the chemistry department and music program, that was what drew me in,” Amolins said. “I have always considered myself a jack of all trades; I don't really have one specific interest. Augustana was the first time I had ever been exposed to the liberal arts philosophy. That was really appealing to me that, ‘Wow, I don't have to give all of these interests up, I can continue to study all of them.’”

As a jack of all trades, Amolins — a chemistry ACS major with minors in math and music — did what Augustana students do best when he arrived on campus: got involved with everything. He participated in the Augustana Band, Northlanders Jazz Band, Augustana Pep Band, a saxophone quartet, Viking Varieties and the American Chemical Society (ACS). In addition, he served as a chemistry tutor, laboratory coordinator and undergraduate research instructor. Amolins was also a presidential, Y.T. Johnson Science and Pro Musica Scholar. He was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship in 2006, and was an Augustana Covenant Award recipient for liberal arts in 2007.

As a member of the Augustana Band, Amolins got the opportunity to travel to China, New York City and Washington, D.C. During his senior year, he lived in a theme house dedicated to music. For their service projects, Amolins and his housemates performed at nursing homes and put on concerts for the community. 

“On top of having fun with friends, music and research very clearly defined my time at Augustana,” said Amolins.

Mirror Article AmolinsWhile at Augustana, Amolins performed research on campus, at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois, and Purdue University. His on-campus research with Drs. Gary Earl and Duane Weisshaar, professors emeriti of chemistry, earned him invitations to a national conference in California and international meeting in Italy, where he was the only American and undergraduate student.

Following graduation, Amolins earned a Master of Science in medicinal chemistry from the University of Kansas (KU), where he began to consider a new path: teaching.

“I liked laboratory research, but I struggled with the fact that, in research, 95% of the answers are ‘no,’” said Amolins. “At the same time, what was really developing in me was a passion for learning about chemistry and sharing that with others.”

After graduating from KU, Amolins got his teaching certification and, in 2009, began to teach high school chemistry in Harrisburg, South Dakota. Amolins, however, remained a jack of all trades, completing a Doctorate of Education in curriculum & instruction from the University of South Dakota (USD) in 2014. The following year, he moved to his current position as director of instruction & federal programs for the Harrisburg School District (HSD).

“I wanted to make a greater impact on the community,” Amolins said of the transition to administration. “I knew I could do a lot with the students I was reaching, but I wanted to think more globally in terms of where the district was going, what opportunities we could provide.”

Since stepping into his role, Amolins has secured nearly $2 million in grants for the district — a skill, he said, harkens back to his Augustana days, where he first learned to write a grant. The grants Amolins has brought in for Harrisburg have primarily been dedicated to curriculum and programming initiatives, with many of them connected to his alma mater.

One of the initiatives includes Harrisburg’s Student Transitioning in Educational Programming (STEP) Academy, a transition program for 18-21 year olds with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Several students from the STEP Academy have gone on to the Augie Access Program — Augustana’s postsecondary comprehensive transition program designed to increase career employment, social, academic and independent living outcomes.

Amolins has also been partnering with Dr. Fenecia Homan ‘05, dean of the Governors Cyber Academy at Dakota State University, to bring a cybersecurity program to Harrisburg High School. He worked with Dr. David O’Hara, Augustana director of environmental studies & sustainability, and Emily Oyos ‘19, of Friends of the Big Sioux River, on the development of a conservation campus at Harrisburg’s Freshman Academy.

Thanks to one of those grants, HSD was able to bring an electric vehicle into its high school automotive program — connecting Amolins back to his research at Argonne National Laboratory studying hydrogen-powered fuel cells, which eventually led to fully electric vehicles. 

“Thinking back on it, at the time, I didn't really think it was going to be a thing,” Amolins said. “Look how far we've come. Now we're doing this at a high school.” 

Viking Days Parade 2022 Michael Amolins and Family

Alongside serving as an assistant professor for the Master of Education (M.Ed.) program within the Sharon Lust School of Education, perhaps Amolins’ most impactful Augustana connection has been introducing the university to Seeds of Change — a science immersion program in northern Costa Rica for high school students. 

“Initially it was for Harrisburg students,” said Amolins. “Then, I started seeing the potential value for Augustana.”

Because of Amolins’ initial connection, Augustana now offers credit to high schoolers who participate in the 10-day immersion program. Seeds of Change also offers an immersion course in bioinformatics — one of Augustana’s newest major and minor offerings.

With all of the Augustana connections in his life, Amolins always remembers where it all started and why he stays connected.

“How can you possibly thank an institution that has completely changed the trajectory of your life? I owe so much to the time and influences that Augustana has afforded me,” said Amolins. “I bleed blue and gold, of course. But, more than anything, I know what my experience at Augustana did for me, and now, I have an opportunity to do that for students who are at the school now.”

But, with all that Amolins has poured into both the Augustana and Harrisburg communities, he knows that his educational foundation wouldn’t have been possible without one thing.

“It's really simple: I wouldn't have gone to Augustana had I not gotten scholarships,” Amolins said. “So, any way I can give back to the university I’m going to, because the life I’m living is because of what I received from the university.”

Part of that life is the best role Amolins said he has: husband and father. He and his wife, Miriah, have two sons, Henry, 10, and Sawyer, 7. Amolins holds on to his title as “jack of all trades” as he coaches baseball, robotics and is a Cub Scout den leader.

And, as Henry and Sawyer are already loyal Vikings fans, Amolins might just be fostering his next and best Augustana connection.

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