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Alumni Spotlight: Vivian Sangunett

Vivian Sangunett

You want Vivian in your corner. Spend a little time with her and you’ll understand just how deeply her passions run and how strongly she serves as an outspoken advocate for those issues. She’s integrated this dedication into all of her life as her career and family has grown, and she’s impacted hundreds of lives along the way, serving as a source of inspiration for her generous family.

Vivian drives her grandson to school almost every day. Not because she has to, but because she values this time with him, this consistent routine and touch point with a growing, changing teenage boy. The fact that she takes him to school is an important symbol of how strongly she values a quality education. This is a significant factor in why she’s such a generous donor to graduate education at U-M.

“I believe if you go to a good college and get a graduate degree that it’s not necessarily too important what you get it in, just that you get it. The process requires you to do research, independent study and critical thinking. That’s what my graduate degree has done. It taught me to learn something new every day, take in facts and form opinions, and generate critical thoughts. Sometimes I feel like a reference librarian. I don’t’ feel the need to know everything; I know how to do research thanks to this University. I’m pretty good at finding things and I love to help people starting out.”

Her love of learning is grounded in inspiration from strong teachers she had in high school and here at U-M. Of her early experience, she recalls, “The high school I went to all those years ago was second only to the Bronx High School of Science. Critical thinking was the major part of what we did. I had a teacher with a Ph.D. in ancient medieval history who gave us a textbook that was 1500 pages long, but what we really did was study republicans versus democrats and the thought processes behind their philosophies. We spent our whole second semester doing this, and we actually won a Freedom Foundation award for it. Her style of teaching has propelled me to be a lifelong educator forever.”

Vivian has clear views on the role of an educator and is firmly in support of whatever the University can do to better prepare faculty for their careers – and steer graduate students for the career that is right for them. She explains, “I don’t think you can train someone to be a quality educator. You can give them ideas, provide them with the technology, work on adult training concepts, give them Meyers Briggs tests; but if they’re not interested, if they don’t care, then keep them out of the classroom. It’s the same with medical doctors: some should be researchers and some should work with patients.”

Vivian’s career began as an educator and has evolved throughout her life, an indication that she lives her mantra to learn something new every day. After finishing her Master’s in Education at U-M, she says, “I taught in the school system until my first child was born. Since I had a Master’s degree in Special Education, I taught whatever the intermediate school needed me to teach - history, English, science. After I had kids, I focused on giving back to the community. I started with volunteer work with the Detroit PBS station and worked on their auction. After that, I worked with the schools and the Republican Party. When my son graduated from high school, I got a second Master’s degree and went into the tax business.” The absence of a finance background didn’t stop Vivian from this last one. She says, “I was divorced and remarried and didn’t understand my tax return. It was winter and my golf partner was taking tax classes. I joined her and fell in love with it. It offered out of the box thinking, an analytical application of the law, and, as a news junky, it provided me with the need to stay current on a variety of issues. I also get a kick at keeping money out of the hand of IRS. Now, I find that I’ve been taking care of most of my clients for so long that they are like my extended family.”

Vivian’s own family has followed in her footsteps in a number of ways: both of her children have graduate degrees and both are significantly involved in volunteerism in their communities, a legacy that continues with all of her family today, including her grandchildren. Her generosity to UM began after she reconnected with Rackham almost twenty years ago when she was asked to host a fundraising event. She and her family then became more involved in donating their time and energy at UM based on their individual interests. Vivian knows exactly where she wants to make a difference. “Academics are much more important to me that athletics. I wanted to give my money to Rackham because it was going to do something; it wasn’t going to get lost. I wanted to improve the quality of faculty.”

Inspiration comes in surprising places. For Vivian, it was an unseasonably miserable winter day as a U-M undergraduate student. “I was in a 100-level world politics class being taught by a visiting professor from Boston who was one of the top in his field at the time. He taught in a big lecture room in Mason hall and would walk around the room as he taught. He didn’t stand behind podium and would really be in your face. What was so terrific was that everybody paid attention, everybody wanted to do well, because he was so dynamic. The highlight was that winter day when no busses were running because there was so much snow, and he came to class on his cross country skis. That’s what you look for in a faculty member, not a guy reading to you from his textbook. That’s basically what I want to support.”

And support it she does. “I’m passionate about high quality education and equally passionate about having great instructors in the classroom. I give to Rackham because I can afford to help people pursue the opportunity to do some of the things I’ve gotten to do just because I’m a lucky person.”

With a viewpoint on the quality of faculty that is so defined, Vivian certainly has advice for graduate students on how to chart their course during school. She illustrates her advice with a specific example she sees often in her role as the membership chair at a local country club. There, she finds herself talking to prospective members who’s wives frequently say they want to play golf because their husband plays golf. “That’s my point: pursuing your own interests is more important. Don’t forget to take the classes you want to take, don’t follow the straight line. The University allows cross pollination across multiple disciplines, and students can build your own area of expertise, maybe even a whole new field of study based on your true interests. You’re not inside a box and can develop what you exactly want,” she maintains.

A global traveler, Vivian is always returning from and preparing for a new adventure. She’s currently packing for a trek to Manchu Picchu in Peru and a riverboat trip on the Amazon, destinations that will fill her cameras and add to her collection of nature photography. She also has plans for a polar bear expedition to Greenland and Iceland and the Norwegian Fjords in the coming months. When asked where we should go, she quickly answers, “My favorite location to return to would be New Zealand. It is an untouched world.”

Her interest in travel is a small expression of Vivian’s passion for the world around her. Her generosity to UM is certainly a manifestation of this passion, and her legacy of philanthropy will last through the example she’s established for those around her.