Fall 2014

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Heather and Mike Shaffer and their fraternal twin sons, Charlie, left, and Tyler, who has undergone three successful surgeries to address a congenital heart defect. Photo by Frank Simonetti.

Northwestern’s Lasting Influence

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An alumni couple gives back to the university that has shaped their lives.

After the unimaginable stress of watching their son, Tyler, undergo two open-heart surgeries within the first six months of his life in 2010, Mike and Heather McConahey Shaffer decided to help other children diagnosed with congenital heart defects. They just didn’t know where to start.

A short time later, Northwestern provided the answer. Just after Tyler and his fraternal twin, Charlie, turned 7 months old, the Shaffers learned that the primary beneficiary of the University’s upcoming Dance Marathon would be the Children’s Heart Foundation, a national organization that funds research about congenital heart defects.

Now, Mike ’97, ’03 MBA volunteers as president of its Illinois chapter, while Heather ’97 also donates her time to the foundation.

It wasn’t the first time Northwestern changed the course of the Shaffers’ lives. In fact, Mike says, “Northwestern has provided the foundation of our lives.”

Mike and Heather grew up just a few miles from each other in the Denver area, but they didn’t meet until spring break of their junior year at Northwestern, when a mutual friend introduced them to each other during a ski trip in Vail, Colo. Soon after returning to campus, they went on their first date, at a California Pizza Kitchen at Old Orchard mall in Skokie.

“I’m sure our paths crossed before then at Northwestern, but we obviously didn’t make much of an impression on each other until junior year,” Heather says with a laugh.

Mike enrolled at Northwestern after participating in the University’s science and engineering Cherub program through the National High School Institute — or “geek camp,” as he calls it.

Heather, who was captain of the Northwestern women’s swim team during her senior year, picked the University for its Division I swim team, academic rigor and proximity to Chicago.

Heather’s summers and free time were devoted to training for swimming, and as she neared graduation, she worried that her lack of internships would hurt her job search.

But as she started interviewing, she realized her experience on the swim team — especially her time as captain — outweighed her lack of internships, a message she’s passed on to swimmers who followed her at Northwestern.

“I found that employers were really focusing on what I learned as a student-athlete and were impressed that I could be at a school that has such a high level of academics and athletics and succeed in both,” she says. “There’s so much you learn from being a student-athlete, such as time management, commitment, dedication and competitiveness, as well as how to be a team player and a leader.”

Heather, who majored in communication studies, eventually landed a job in national advertising with the Chicago Tribune, where she worked for about 10 years, until Tyler and Charlie were born.

Mike, who majored in political science as an undergraduate, returned to Northwestern to earn an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. After working in investment banking, private equity and corporate development, he is now chief financial officer at Pediatric Therapy Services, which provides therapy programs to schools.

Mike credits Northwestern for his successful career, and he and Heather say the school’s evolution since their time as undergraduates is a source of pride.

“Northwestern is setting itself apart as a truly remarkable school,” Mike says. “To say that’s where we earned our degrees — that’s important to us.”

The Shaffers co-chaired their class’ 10th and 15th reunion committees and are members of the Northwestern University Leadership Circle giving society, which recognizes donors who contribute $1,000 or more to Northwestern each year. They both belong to the Leadership Circle’s Chicago regional board, with Heather serving as one of its co-chairs. Heather also serves on the Chicago regional committee for We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern.

“Northwestern just continues to make you more and more proud to be a graduate and to make you want to get involved,” Heather says. “You really feel like you’re part of it, and you’re seeing it change before your eyes.”

Meanwhile, Tyler and Charlie, now 4 years old, are some of the Wildcats’ biggest fans. They both wear their Northwestern jerseys whenever their parents take them to Wildcat Alley before football games at Ryan Field.

Tyler underwent another successful open-heart surgery — his third — last November at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and his doctors say he probably won’t need any more operations to address his congenital heart defect. Other than the scar on his chest, his parents say, he’s just like any other 4-year-old boy.

Will Tyler and Charlie follow their parents to Northwestern?

“They have no choice,” Heather jokes.