Cooley student rewarded for going above and beyond


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Thomas M. Cooley Law School student Jennifer Bylsma literally gave of herself so that another might live.

Her good deed was so amazing that Cooley administration officials decided to give her the school’s prestigious Great Deeds award.

What Bylsma did is something many might consider doing, but good impulses might be overcome by the prospect of inconvenience and even possible danger: she gave her bone marrow to a stranger.

Bylsma, who is a U.S. Army Reservist, participated in a bone marrow drive while she was in basic training at Fort Leonard Woods, Missouri, a few years ago. When she was notified last year she was a bone marrow match for someone with leukemia, she did not hesitate.

When the Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism found out about this, they immediately knew she would make an excellent recipient of the Great Deeds award.

This is only the second time any Cooley student on any campus has received the award, according to the Center’s Assistant Director Karen Rowlader.

The first was also given at the Grand Rapids campus, last year, to Shady Yassin, the student who bravely foiled a robbery in a downtown Grand Rapids coffee house at the end of 2009.
The Great Deeds award is given to Cooley staff, faculty and students to recognize those “who have demonstrated outstanding commitment to the service of others.” No more than one student per term (per campus) can win the award, and it is not necessarily given every term.

Anyone who has observed a Cooley student doing something they consider praiseworthy, whether over the long-term or as a single selfless act, can enter a nomination.
In order to complete her “great deed,” Bylsma had to travel twice to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington D.C., once for tests to confirm the match, and once for the actual procedure.

The hospital also had to confirm that Bylsma is in good health. Though it is not a life-threatening procedure, bone marrow donation can cause soreness and discomfort, and the better the donor’s health, the better the outcome.

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, 70 percent of patients needing marrow do not have a matching donor in their family. The procedure to become part of the “Be a Match” registry is simple, now involving only swabs in the potential donor’s mouth in most cases.

Bylsma’s donation, given without consideration for her own comfort and convenience, is only one way in which she is giving back to the community. As a reservist, she is fully expecting to be called up for active duty in Afghanistan.

Though at one point Bylsma anticipated that might happen in the next couple of weeks, Rowlader said that it is now likely to be delayed, at least for a while. Nonetheless, as a reservist, Bylsma is willing to risk giving up her life for her country.

Therefore, Bylsma qualified for both the long-term and short-term criteria in winning her Great Deed Award.

And the award was actually given to Bylsma twice.

Because she was unable to attend the Honors Convocation where the award was announced due to a mandatory reserve training, the small team pictured above “interrupted” her during school. As the end of class time neared, they surprised Bylsma and presented the award in front of her classmates.

Both times, Rowlader stated, “It is my pleasure ... to recognize Ms. Jennifer Bylsma, who went above and beyond what we expect from each other when given the opportunity to help a complete stranger.

“Many of us would have refused just because of the inconvenience; many students would have refused due to the demands of law school.  Not Jennifer!

“This young lady that we are honoring today does not ‘stand down’ to any challenge. Not only did she donate bone marrow to a complete stranger, she is also willing to put her life on the line so that we may enjoy our rights as Americans. Jenny, we are proud of your accomplishments in law school, and as a military intelligence officer.

“We are inspired by her compassion for others.”

Rowlader says that Bylsma does not know the bone marrow recipient, but she does know that he is a 68-year-old man. Bylsma has said she pictured a grandfather who wanted to live long enough to enjoy his children and grandchildren.

As they talked after Bylsma was nominated, Rowlader found out that Bylsma had gone to school with her own children in Hudsonville.

Cooley Assistant Dean Tracey Brame says, “Karen can’t get through a story about Jennifer without tears.”