When Sue Petrisin was offered a chance to go skydiving with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights this past summer, she didn’t hesitate.
“The way I’ve looked at life, I’m going to take every opportunity I have,” she said in a recent interview. This approach has taken her all the way to the top of Kiwanis International, where she was elected the service organization’s first female president.
Petrisin, who is also associate director for Alumni Programs at MSU, started her one-year term in October. “For me it was really a way of paying it forward, for all Kiwanis has done for me over the years,” she said.
She’s been involved with Kiwanis since she joined her high school Key Club in northern Michigan. The experience made her realize “there are people that need more than we do,” she said. She continued her service and leadership in college, in MSU’s Circle K club. But after graduation, she was forced to take a break—Kiwanis didn’t admit women until 1987. Petrisin was invited to join the East Lansing chapter soon after.
Eventually she took leadership roles at the group’s state and district level. “For me, it was an opportunity to grow as a person,” she said, learning leadership skills amid plenty of support if she made mistakes.
Kiwanis, with more than 630,000 members in at least 80 nations, is dedicated to serving children. Petrisin’s first goal as president was to finish the group’s five-year effort to raise $110 million to support UNICEF in eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus.
Her second goal is to expand membership and open more clubs around the world. This fall she traveled through Malaysia and Japan connecting with Kiwanis groups. In Cambodia, she met people living in wooden shacks without doors, windows, running water or electricity. “It really gives you a different perspective,” she said, noting the contrast with conversations she sometimes hears on campus.
Petrisin often travels so much she barely has time to unpack. With MSU games across the Big 10, Kiwanis meetings in New York, pitches to leaders in D.C., and conventions around the world, she keeps a bag packed and ready to go. The busy schedule has its perks. She gets to attend MSU’s games, she saw Pink perform at UNICEF’s gala and rode on Kiwanis’ float in the Rose Parade.
And she gets to see the world. This year she will visit Bucharest, Prague, Taiwan and Austria. “It’s the adventure of a lifetime, being able to travel and represent an organization that has done so much for me,” she said. All the while, Petrisin is ready to connect with fellow Spartans wherever she finds them—or they find her. Many approach her at Kiwanis conventions and after learning she’s from East Lansing. Petrisin, who often sports an MSU pin, enjoys these connections that make the world a little smaller.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “I’ll see somebody in an airport and yell ‘Go green!’and they’ll yell ‘Go white!’ back.”