The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

“GVSU has helped me turn my life around,” GV alum reflects on personal impact of higher education

Courtesy / Greg Smolka

Greg Smolka, a 2014 graduate of Grand Valley State University, uses his education as a tool to give back to other students. Smolka’s story is one of resilience and determination, chronicling adversity in early life and fueling his success in more recent years.

Smolka’s journey to success started in the depths of poverty navigating homeless shelters and foster families while relying on government aid to survive.

“My mom actually was 15 years old when she had me, and it just kind of started a wild life,” Smolka said. “So by the time I was actually about 11 years old, I stopped going to school, started working full time and our family was traveling with the fair.” 

Smolka shared he was bringing home $1,000 every 10 days at this time, which he used to support himself as well as his brother and sister. After doing this for two years, Smolka’s grandparents finally decided enough was enough and took in Smolka and his family. 

“When I moved in with them, I kinda got to see life from the other side. So I started to have dreams,” Smolka said. “My first dream was I’m going to make it to the NBA, and you know, a six-foot kid who’s not that fast, that’s probably not gonna happen. My grandma always told me, ‘You’ve got to have a plan B.’” 

When he began to develop his plan B, Smolka learned what a college education could provide him with. He explored options by talking to friends and family members about what they liked about their careers and how they got there. This motivated him to begin pursuing his education at GVSU by improving his academic performance in high school. 

Once at GVSU, Smolka broadened his horizons and continuously improved himself as he further refined what his “plan B” meant to him. Through exploration, he eventually decided to pursue a career in supply chain management. 

“I was just taking advantage of everything GV had to offer, so whether that was going to extracurricular events or going to professor’s office hours and just talking with them because I really didn’t know for sure where I was gonna go or where my career is gonna go,” Smolka said.

This practice would eventually pay off for Smolka at the end of his education with the acquisition of an internship with JR Automation through a connection with one of his former professors. 

“My education was super well balanced. So when I got (to the internship), I really knew what to look for, and what questions to ask, which really led me to my next jobs,” Smolka said. “I now run a department, and I am teaching other people the same stuff I learned at GV. You hear people all the time (say) ‘so when am I ever gonna use this in the real world?’ It’s like, yeah, you’d be surprised, actually, you will use this stuff later in life.” 

In more recent years, Smolka has focused on repaying his success back into the Grand Rapids communities through the acquisition of rental properties. What started as a different way to invest, turned into an effort to help college students and recent graduates get on their feet. 

“I hear these horror stories all the time where people get their rent raised on them. They have a one-bedroom apartment, and it’s like $1,800 a month, but when they moved in, it was $1200,” Smolka said. “It’s all people who kind of need a little bit of help, or are starting their lives. I’ve helped three of them with budgets, and I’ve helped them get jobs. My biggest motivator in life is just positively influencing people.” 

Smolka said he is always willing to meet with members of the GVSU community who may be seeking advice and guidance on personal finance, resilience and continuing education. 

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