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Māra Wiggins Named 2024 Cowan Award Recipient

Published Tuesday, April 09, 2024

President Kumara Jayasuriya with Māra Wiggins
President Kumara Jayasuriya with Māra Wiggins

Each year, SMSU presents the Cathy Cowan Award for University and Community Service to one deserving employee. This year, Māra Wiggins, Professor of Library and University Librarian, was chosen as the 2024 recipient of the Cathy Cowan Award.  

“I think of service as something much bigger. I think of all the people I know who sit on important committees, changing policies on a statewide level. I don’t feel like I do that kind of work,” said Wiggins.  

“But you can't tell your kids that something's important if they don't see you do it yourself,” Wiggins said. “I want my spot to be better and I want the world to be better. And if you don't help, then how can it become better?” 

Wiggins joined the SMSU faculty in 2002 as an adjunct to work on a legal collection. She grew up in Rushford, Minn. and started college at Minnesota State University, Mankato (Mankato State at the time.) She met and married John Wiggins who was in ROTC and was soon commissioned into the military. They moved to Oklahoma and Wiggins completed her undergraduate degree in English, with a minor in Human Relations, at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. She did work study at the library which sparked her interest. The couple moved to Davenport, Iowa and Wiggins earned her master’s in library and information science at the University of Iowa.  

“We loved it in Iowa, but we were ready to come home,” she said. The right opportunities came to them at the right time, and they moved to Walnut Grove, Minn., her husband’s hometown, and they’ve been there ever since. She would tell you she accidentally fell into working with college students. She began her career as a public librarian.  

“I loved my preschool storytime more than anything on Earth, but I learned here how much I like students this age. I really love freshmen. I’ve been so lucky to be part of the LEP 101 cohort with Amanda Sieling, Tom Webb, and Sheila Tabaka and get time with 100 freshmen every semester,” Wiggins explained. “The greatest gift from that are the times when a student comes in my office, just to sit and talk, and you can see they just need someone to listen, sometimes it’s a crisis, sometimes it’s not, maybe they just miss their mom.” 

Wiggins feels it’s important to give time and a safe place for students to just be. She’s keenly in tune with what she sees these college students need, grace and a safe space, as she calls it.  

“Because we all need a little of that once in a while,” she continued. “I really just enjoy this job, but caring for these kids hits particularly close to home. I believe in karma. And I'm hoping that it comes around to my own kids when they need it.” 

She has daughters the same age. Elizabeth, a sophomore at USD, and Abigail, a senior at WWG. She hopes that the care she gives to students here will be the same care her own children need in their college experience. 

“Things just worked out well for us. We live the family farm, the third generation. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for these moments of serendipity. My husband and Tim Alcorn grew up together in Walnut Grove. Tim worked at SMSU and was next door neighbors with John Bowden, from the SMSU Library. John needed an adjunct librarian to work on a law library grant project. I applied and the rest is history,” she said.  

Wiggins worked on the grant project for over a decade then moved into a tenure track position. “I knew it must be a great place to work because none of the librarians ever leave. They worked here for decades and there was never an opening. The librarians when I came were institutions themselves, Sandy Fuhr, Dicksy Howe Noyes, Kathleen Ashe, Mary Jane Striegel, and Sandy Hoffbeck,” said Wiggins. “There was never an opening, and it really does make you think: There's something good going on there if people stay that long. I learned so much from all of them.” 

“I am so, so lucky to have this job and this life,” Wiggins continued. “Working with students is satisfying, rather than focusing on crafting the perfect reference collection. It’s connecting with these students and doing something—even a small thing—that matters to one person.” 

At SMSU, the meaning of service is going beyond the definition of your job, not just doing your job well. Service is at the heart of the SMSU culture. The Cathy Cowan Award for University and Community Service celebrates those whose dedication impacts the campus, the community, and the region. Presented to a faculty or staff member each year, it is the most prestigious annual award given by Southwest Minnesota State University.  

The award recognizes service, not creative achievement; it is all about “doing good for others," rather than accomplishing things for yourself. These ideals are the basis for the Cowan Award, named for the late Cathy Cowan, a Psychology professor who died in an auto accident in December 2001. The award was created to honor those who follow her example of service to others. 

In one of many nomination letters, the following was said, “Māra Wiggins embodies the spirit of the Cathy Cowan Award for University and Community Service through her selfless dedication to service, her profound impact on the SMSU community, and her unwavering commitment to fostering a culture of inclusivity, collaboration, and excellence.” 

 In addition to her dedication to the SMSU campus community, she’s also involved in her church as a council member and lector. She serves her community in Westbrook-Walnut Grove through her 30+ years in the VFW and American Legion Auxiliary. She is also president of the WWG Chargers Sports Boosters. At SMSU she teaches LEP 101, advises undeclared students, is a member of the Mustang Club, Friends of the Theatre, and has served on countless committees at SMSU, and on statewide library organizations including SAMMIE and MnPALS.  

“I've been around long enough that when I came to SMSU, the Cowan Award was fairly new. I looked at the recipients and that I thought were really squared away, they were good at their jobs, knowledgeable in their fields, capable movers and shakers," said Wiggins. “I looked up to them, and I still respect all of them very humbly. I never imagined I would be one of them.” 


Wiggins will be presented with the Cowan Award Medallion at Mustang Ovations on Thursday, April 18 from 4:00-5:30pm in the SMSU Conference Center. Everyone is welcome to attend the event.

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