Service, community and compassion define 2009 Alumni Award winners
The 2009 Alumni Award winners will be honored at a ceremony on April 21, at Campion Ballroom.
Photos by Chris Joseph Taylor
The 2009 recipients of Seattle University’s Alumni Awards are a distinguished bunch. Although their backgrounds are diverse—from a man who works to improve the lives of foster kids to a young alumna who makes health care and other vital services available to children affected by HIV/AIDS in Ghana—each in their own way embody the mission of the university. Through their work in the community, as service leaders and entrepreneurs, educators and mentors, and supporters of Seattle University, these individuals continue to inspire.
Here are their stories.
Alumnus of the Year
Nick Arvanitidis, ’63
Nick Arvanitidis considers himself “a philosopher,” one who offers sage advice culled from rich life experiences in the academic and business worlds.
Whether he’s imparting career pointers or mentoring a college student, his philosophy is simple but direct: Do what you love.
Regardless of age or aim, Arvanitidis says, you need to be guided by a strong moral compass. “Choose the right thing to do, and let money be the result of how well you are doing, not why are you doing it,” say Arvanitidis, the 2009 Alumnus of the Year.
“Nick’s contributions to Seattle University are wide ranging and his professional achievements are more than impressive,” says Mary Kay McFadden, vice president for University Advancement. “But what he combines with all that is a deep understanding and commitment to the university’s mission.”
He speaks from experience as someone who has racked up significant achievements—professionally and personally—since his days as an electrical engineering student at Seattle University.
Born in Komotini, Greece, Arvanitidis arrived in Seattle “on a big boat called the Queen Elizabeth,” he says, and started off taking night classes to improve his English. In 1959 he enrolled as an SU student. There was little doubt about what he would study.
“I was preordained to go into engineering,” Arvanitidis says. “When you came from Greece [in the 1950s], you went into science or engineering. You were brought up to do that.”
Four years later, with an electrical engineering degree in hand, he was off to Stanford University, where he would earn a master’s in electrical engineering/systems analysis and a doctorate in engineering-economics systems.
The quality education he received at SU prepared him for the academic rigors of Stanford and a peer group of some of science and engineering’s brightest young minds.
“Seattle University was a very cozy environment but very tough,” he says.
In 1968, after he finished his PhD at Stanford, Arvanitidis launched Intasa, a think tank that offered consultation on management of natural resources and public policy issues such as the Clean Air Act. During this time he also took a job as an adjunct professor in Stanford’s engineering department.
When he turned 40, with his interest in academia and consulting waning, Arvanitidis decided a career change was in order. He was approached with an opportunity to go into the then-fledgling biotech industry.
In 1981 he and two scientist friends founded SEQUUS Pharmaceuticals, formerly Liposome Technology, a fully integrated pharmaceutical organization specializing in research, product development and regulatory affairs. Among the company’s greatest achievements under Arvanitidis’ leadership: the development of a drug used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers and an antifungal drug to treat infections. Both products were approved in several countries, including the United States and Europe. Until 1995 Arvanitidis served as the organization’s chairman of the board and CEO. (In 1999 SEQUUS was bought by Alza Corporation, and two years later it was acquired by Johnson & Johnson.)
“I decided my hair was already white and I didn’t want to lose any more,” says Arvanitidis, now of Menlo Park, Calif., on his decision to move on from the company.
When he left SEQUUS he turned another page in his professional life, taking his first official break from the workforce in 36 years. These days Arvanitidis and his wife, Athena, spend summers in Greece and enjoy skiing in California’s Sierra Mountains in the winter. He still does some consultation work, which might mean providing direction to a startup company looking to develop new business strategies or a young person inquiring about grad school or a career.
“There’s a stage in life when you have an opportunity to explore, a window that is open that will soon close,” he says. “You shouldn’t have any bounds. I’m a firm believer that to succeed today, you should like what you are doing.”
He also believes in the importance of giving back. In 2006 he endowed a scholarship in the College of Science and Engineering for electrical and computer engineering students. The scholarship is named in memory of Frank Wood, S.J., a longtime professor in the college who was a mentor to Arvanitidis.
“The heart and soul of electrical engineering was Father Frank Wood,” he says. “I felt that with what Fr. Wood did for my life and the lives of others, it would be nice to have an endowment in his name that will be around for a long time.”
It was Fr. Wood who encouraged Arvanitidis to go to graduate school, a concept that was not on his radar in his early academic life.
“My exposure to grad schools was limited,” he says. “I didn’t have any notion of going. But Fr. Wood took me under his wing. He was the guy who really gave me the perspective and understanding of graduate school.”
Being named Alumnus of the Year is a great honor, Arvanitidis says. “I am very grateful for what SU did for me,” he says. “Not just going to school here, but the mentoring that was provided. This is very humbling.”
Rufus Yerxa, ’76 JD
Rufus Yerxa’s law school education has led him in unexpected but exciting directions, from U.S. ambassador to a high-ranking post with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland. But Yerxa has never forgotten his legal roots, sowed by law professors whose impact has stayed with him for more than 30 years.
There’s Tom Holdych—now professor emeritus—who shared what Yerxa calls his “powerful intellect” on contracts and constitutional law. John Weaver, “who managed somehow to pound the rule against perpetuities so far into my brain that I still dream about it.” And then there’s Professor Sheldon Frankel, whose lessons on taxes proved especially relevant in Yerxa’s future professional pursuits. “He dazzled me with his knowledge … and I didn’t realize at the time how his knowledge of the U.S. tax system would stand me in good stead when I went to work for the House Ways and Means Committee.”
“The early generation of professors at the law school were a remarkable group of men and women who taught me a great deal about how to think like a lawyer,” he says, “and how to get to the real core of a problem and how to create a rational intellectual framework for solving legal issues.”
How does a law grad from Seattle end up working for the WTO, a position he’s had at the organization’s Geneva headquarters since 2002?
Years before, Yerxa worked as a trade negotiator and government trade specialist. While serving as a U.S. negotiator for the Uruguay Round WTO agreement, he received an unexpected call.
“I was actually working in the private sector in Washington, D.C., when a call came in from the new director general of the WTO offering me the deputy position,” Yerxa says. “After intensive family discussions, we collectively decided to accept.”
As one of four deputy director generals with the WTO, which deals with rules regarding trade issues among nations, Yerxa holds the second-ranking position in the organization. It’s a multidimensional role: he serves as a key policy adviser to the director general, assists governments in various negotiations and oversees the 800-person WTO Secretariat’s daily operations. Since joining the WTO he’s had a hand in other areas surrounding legal affairs, dispute settlement, trade remedies and tariff negotiations. Currently, Yerxa says his focus is industrial tariff negotiations and intellectual property matters. But it doesn’t end there. Yerxa supervises nearly half the Secretariat’s staff and he chairs the Secretariat’s Appointments and Promotion Board, among other roles. The WTO notwithstanding, Yerxa’s resume is impressive. He’s been a senior trade official in both Republican and Democratic administrations, holding posts including as ambassador, permanent representative to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and deputy trade representative in Washington, D.C.
When asked what he is most proud of, in a career full of professional touchstones, Yerxa points to his family.
“The two things in my life that give me the most satisfaction and joy are my successful marriage to a wonderful woman and my two fantastic children,” he says. “But on a professional side, I would say it is my many years of working to strengthen and enhance a truly multilateral, rules-based trading system, one which has the aspiration of treating all nations fairly based on the core principle of nondiscrimination. I know there are many critics of the WTO, but they perhaps don’t realize that its strongest advocates are small and vulnerable countries that would otherwise face a far more mercantilist world.”
A holistic approach to legal education well prepared Yerxa for his ability to change professions.
“[I gained] the knowledge that I could use my legal training and the other tools a legal education bestows—an ability to rationalize and put things in logical order, for example—in any number of ways,” he says, “and that I could prosper in a career in government or public policy.”
Receiving an honor from his alma mater “means a great deal to me,” Yerxa says.
“My career has taken me far from my law school roots, but it is important to me that I can reconnect with today’s students and faculty and hopefully inspire others.”
For Harriet Stephenson, business education is about more than just the “bottom line.”
The longtime professor at the Albers School of Business and Economics—she started there in 1967—is galvanized by the efforts of those in her Small Business Institute (SBI) program or when her students develop a winning business model in the Entrepreneurship Center Business Plan Competition.
While she’s accomplished much in her more than 40 years at Albers, Stephenson says her original career plans were far removed from the business world.
“I wanted to be president of the United States,” Stephenson says with a laugh. “That got a real dose of reality when I didn’t do so well in poli sci.”
Instead, she found herself gravitating toward education—her mother was a teacher—and decided her focus would be business, the chosen profession of her older brother. At the time it was an ambitious goal as most women, Stephenson says, weren’t pursuing business careers in the 1960s. So after she earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in business from the University of Washington, she pursued her doctorate there so she could teach.
“There are a lot more women in the MBA program today than in 1962, when I got my MBA,” she says of how far the program has come. “At that time, out of 5,700 MBAs, there were probably 100 women. Now more than half of all graduate MBA students are women.”
Professor Stephenson’s imprint on the business school is palpable. She created the Entrepreneurship Center—the center’s annual business-plan competition is named in her honor—and brought to Albers the Small Business Institute, which is incorporated into several sections of the senior capstone course. It’s also used in the MBA Social Enterprise/Triple Bottom Line class, where students spend a quarter providing analysis and drafting business plans for nonprofit and for-profit companies in the region who would not normally be able to afford such consulting.
The SBI practices a service-learning methodology, in which teams of five to six students meet weekly with their clients and offer feedback and recommendations that demonstrate their business prowess. The takeaways from the course, Stephenson says, benefit both the companies and the students. The businesses get a fresh perspective and solutions to challenges they face. The students get hands-on training, apply classroom lessons to real-life scenarios and learn the importance of teamwork.
“We are so able to demonstrate the quality of work and the capability of our students,” she says. “We can match them against any students anywhere. This is true for our undergraduates and our grads.”
Sharing her business smarts with others extends beyond her work at Albers.
A champion for women in management and business, Stephenson emphasizes in her classes the “triple bottom line,” a concept that embraces people, environment/planet and profits as the three essential measurements of success—rather than profits alone for a for-profit organization or service alone for a nonprofit. She often serves as a mentor or adviser to small companies and startups and has given her time to several boards, including Washington CASH, Community Capital Development and the Village Net.
An additional cause important to Stephenson is the Prisoner Education Network, which enables Washington state inmates to earn college-level credits and become part of a network to prepare them for careers once they are released.
Yet another area that interests Stephenson is the intersection of globalism and business. With the support of colleagues, Stephenson has started microcredit programs in villages in Ghana and Kenya.
For a maverick educator who has carved out a distinguished teaching career, receiving an honor from alumni is especially meaningful.
“It is really heartwarming and reaffirming to have somebody say you made a difference to them,” Stephenson says. “I have been at this a few years, and it’s nice to get this kind of response. I have been exceedingly fortunate.”
Jim Theofelis, ’89
After two decades as a counselor and therapist to thousands of Washington’s most vulnerable youth, Jim Theofelis, ’89, heeded the lesson of three women and a baby.
As he tells it, the women rescue a baby from a river, take turns admiring it and carefully set it on the bank, only to see another baby floating by. Then another, and another, and soon they’re stacking babies like cordwood. At last one woman starts to walk away.
“What are you doing?” her friends ask.
“I’m going upstream,” she says, “to see who’s throwing all these babies in the river.”
Eight years ago, Theofelis felt like these women, helping one distressed youth after another. So he decided to go upstream, launching Seattle’s Mockingbird Society to build a better model for foster care and to reform public policy and legislation in the field.
“I’m trying to build a world-class system so kids who are in trouble, and may or may not have parents who can take care of them, can still have a childhood and a life that doesn’t include trauma, homelessness and exploitation,” says Theofelis, 53. “One of the things that I’ve seen, over 30 years of working with kids in foster care and on the streets, is that far too often the solutions that we provide them are not much better than the problem we pulled them out of.”
One problem is that children and their foster parents often shoulder their burdens in isolation. Theofelis’ Mockingbird Family Model attempts to solve this by connecting foster families in a network so that parents can share support, resources and child-rearing expertise. It also features a single “Hub Home” where foster kids and parents can find help, visit or just rest their heads. The model is similar to what Theofelis enjoyed while growing up with his parents and grandmother in White Center, and it stands apart from the common foster experience of serial homes and stressed-out caregivers.
“The Hub can be a drop-in place, although we would use the language ‘visit,’ in the same way you might drop by and visit someone in your community of friends and family. Additionally, one of the benefits of the Hub Home is the ability to help kids and families plan their visits and respites, which also brings an increased sense of order and confidence to the home.”
Theofelis also has had a hand in roughly half a dozen legislative reforms, including the Washington Foster Care Achievement Act. Before the act passed in 2006, a child with a general equivalency diploma (GED) lost foster care benefits when he or she turned 18. Theofelis paints a picture of a young man celebrating his 18th birthday, only to pack all he owns in a Hefty garbage bag—the unofficial luggage of foster care—and set off in search of shelter.
Theofelis, whose connection to SU extends to stints as a guest lecturer and collaborations with students on special projects, said receiving SU’s community service award is “very humbling.”
“I feel honored,” he says, “as the Seattle University community is composed of so many talented and compassionate people who also do important work.”
A few years ago, when Anne Farrell stepped down as president, CEO and general powerhouse of the Seattle Foundation, the director of a local nonprofit said Farrell could take credit for teaching the region how to open up its wallet.
The numbers justify the claim. Over two decades, Farrell built the endowment of the Seattle Foundation from $10 million to more than $300 million, making it the largest community foundation in the state. As chair of the Seattle Public Library Foundation, she helped raise more than $80 million to overhaul the city’s public libraries.
So when Seattle University started looking for leaders of its unprecedented $160 million capital campaign, Farrell was a prime recruit.
“Anne Farrell was on the short list,” says Jim Hembree, senior development officer in University Advancement. “And they got the dream team.”
Given her broad community connections and work on Seattle libraries, Farrell was particularly well suited for raising money for the campaign’s lead project, the university’s Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons. It also helped that she’s a bookworm.
“If you were to see my house, you would realize that I have bookshelves everywhere, and I have books piled up on chairs and floors,” says Farrell, fresh from reading A Prescription to Kill by Seattle author Thomas W. Griffin. “I’m just a book person. I love all that.”
The library campaign committee, which Farrell chaired, has raised more than $37 million, including a $10 million matching gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Farrell says she is particularly pleased that the response was strong enough for construction to start a year earlier than planned—in May 2009—giving students access to the facility that much sooner.
In a larger sense, she says, the library is part of a general rise in the university’s stature through the leadership of Presidents Sundborg and William Sullivan, S.J., strong faculty, great students and an increasing dedication to service. As a trustee since 2002, and before that a regent in 1987, Farrell has had a front-row seat for much of the university’s growth.
The library and learning commons will take the university even further, she says, with new digital tools letting students learn and collaborate with others around the world.
“That is something that I think helps take the university to a whole new level,” she says. “It’s interdisciplinary as well as international in its ability to bring people together.”
Outstanding Young Alumna
Rebecca Conte, ’07
That’s how Rebecca Conte, ’07, sums up the past three years, which have changed the life of this young Seattle nurse and the lives of hundreds of children and adults living with or affected by HIV/AIDS in Ghana.
What began with a notion to open a health clinic to provide health care services to the village of Ho, Ghana, has morphed into New Seed International Care Center. This multifunctional facility is a health clinic, nursery, vocational school and orphanage benefiting many of the community’s youngest members affected by the disease.
“This has turned into a large care center that has literally changed the face of HIV and AIDS in the community,” Conte says.
It was on a service trip during her junior year that Conte was first introduced to this region of the world and its dire need for basic health care. Service abroad was nothing new to Conte, who spent time in high school building homes in Tijuana, Mexico, and later taught English to Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic. When she arrived in Ghana, she planned to use her nursing education in the area of maternity care. But her focus shifted when she saw people in the advanced stages of AIDS denied routine medical care because of their condition.
“I was just devastated by what I had seen,” says Conte, who works as a critical care nurse at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center. “I came back and had no idea what I could do about it. I said, ‘I would love to see a clinic there and more adequate care for HIV/AIDS patients.’”
Conte’s first step was to connect with New Seed International, a humanitarian AIDS organization based in Ghana, to lay the groundwork for building a clinic. In 2006 she established a U.S. arm of New Seed International, and she now serves as its executive director.
A year later, with the support of many friends, family and colleagues who helped raise more than $150,000 for the clinic, Conte’s dream was realized with the clinic’s opening.
In addition to caring for those with HIV and AIDS, the center provides basic health care services and treats conditions common in the region, such as dehydration, malnourishment, tuberculosis and typhoid fever.
With one big goal behind her, Conte continued to broaden her aspirations. Last year she opened a nursery school and orphanage primarily serving children with HIV/AIDS. There are 29 children housed in the orphanage, with plans for expansion to accommodate 100. She is working on a program that will enable people in the United States to sponsor an orphan. A donation of $75 a month will provide necessary health care and education for a child in need, Conte says.
With the completion of the work she set out to do with New Seed International in Ghana, Conte realized there was more work to be done to bring the health care she made accessible to those living with HIV/AIDS in Africa to more people. Recently Conte changed the name and mission of her organization, now called Med25 International, which starts at the community level to improve access to "competent, culturally appropriate and affordable health care" to those most in need throughout the world.
Following the success of her efforts in Ghana and with the broader reach of Med25, Conte wants to open health care clinics in Liberia and Kenya. The hope is to start construction on a clinic in Kenya by the end of the year and then move on to focus on the needs of Liberia, Conte says.
“Sometimes I still want to pinch myself when I think about what has happened,” Conte says. “In three years … this has turned into so much more than I could ever have imagined.”
Another important facility at the center is a vocational school, which aims to provide jobs and a steady income—particularly for young Ghanaian women, who might otherwise turn to prostitution to support their families. At the school the women take up various trades, including weaving and bread making.
“The thing that has been incredible … is to watch Ghanaians take pride in what they are doing,” Conte says. “They have pride in what they have been able to build.”
Although she is an inspiration to many, Conte is modest in her self-assessment of her accomplishments. She credits her SU education with providing a compass to guide what has become a mission.
“It’s humbling to know that I am not the only one doing this work,” Conte says. “It reminds me that there is so much to do, and I am so grateful that I went to a university that instilled that in me—to make the world a better place.”
To learn more about New Seed International and how you can help, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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