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My GRCC Story: Yasmina Zimmer overcomes obstacles to find success, earn a University of Michigan fellowship

March 28, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Married at the age of 16, Yasmina Zimmer’s dream of college and a career were shattered before they’d even taken shape.

Now 23 and with that relationship behind her, Zimmer is earning high praise — and high honors — at Grand Rapids Community College where she was recently voted student of the year in both biology and geology.

“Yasmina is one of the most inspiring students I’ve had in my 20-plus years of teaching,” said Tari Noelani Mattox, GRCC Physical Sciences Department head and geology professor. “She is a natural leader not only because she is motivated and ‘gets things done,’ but because she has the calm strength needed to lead others.”

It’s that strength that fortified Zimmer throughout her five-year marriage and resuscitated her three years ago when her marriage ended.

“I was already 21 and felt really stuck in life even after leaving because of the healing I had to do,” Zimmer said. “I knew there were so many more things in life for me, but I wasn’t able to do them while I was in that relationship. So, I decided now was the time.”

Compelled to drop out of high school shortly after her wedding, Zimmer earned her GED certificate a year ago and began taking classes at GRCC last summer. It’s there where she fell in love with biology and geology and hopes to one day attain advanced degrees in both academic specialties.

Zimmer will get a taste of university life in May when she begins a 10-week paid Community College Summer Fellowship Program at the University of Michigan. 

GRCC teamed up with U-M to provide select students with cutting edge research opportunities through the program, made possible by the Transfer Bridges to the Humanities, U-M,  grant partnership.

The fellowship, Mattox said, appears to be designed for a community college student like Zimmer who has a “love of learning and thirst for knowledge that inspire you as a teacher.”

“It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to learn from expert researchers in their fields,” Zimmer said. “No matter what my future holds, having that fellowship on my resume is going to be really great.”

Before she heads to Ann Arbor, though, there’s still work to be done at GRCC.

For her Honors Program project in Historical Geology, Zimmer is working with Mattox and focusing on interpreting Michigan bedrock stratigraphy. The final product will be an exhibit in April at GRCC’s Calkins Science Center featuring rock samples and their history.

Her Animal Biology honors project with professor Matthew Douglas will study a selection of arthropods to look at how closely they’re related based on similarities in antennae structure and genetics.

All this while carrying 19 credits, sustaining a 3.88 GPA, putting herself through college and waiting tables on weekends at a Grand Rapids brewery. Not to mention starting GRCC’s first Geology Club in her spare time.

Zimmer credits GRCC’s faculty as integral to her success.

“I couldn’t have asked for better professors to learn from and who have also provided me with such great opportunities and support in my academics. They have each truly made GRCC a home for me,” said Zimmer, who’s on track to graduate in December with an associate degree in Pre-Environmental and Sustainability Studies.

It all seems surreal to her at times.

“I never thought any of these things would be my life,” she said. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished … but I don’t want to be too proud because not all the work is done yet.”

This story was reported by Beth McKenna.