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Alumni Stories: Charting Their Own Course

Sarah Steinbach | Denise Ojarigi | Willie Monteiro | Chee Vang | Evan Williams

For some, the word "career" evokes a straightforward process, their college degree marking the beginning of a single upward trajectory.

For others, a career takes a more circuitous route. Their degrees are the beginning, where skills attained in one area are applied to another. Like notes in a jazz piece, combined in new ways, skills are reconfigured, producing exciting new results.

The alumni highlighted on the following pages have created careers they never imagined. They have taken the best of what they learned and followed their hearts. They have created lives as unique as works of art, as unique as they are.

Sarah Steinbach

Sarah Steinbach

Sailing from Stage to Sea

Wielding a box cutter in one hand and pushing open the door with the other, SarahSteinbach ushers visitors inside. It's not quite 9 am, and she's in the middle of unloading decorations for an upcoming prom. The prom's theme is "Rolling in the Deep" and it just may be the only school to have professional lighting affects as part of the aquatic decoration plans. For Steinbach, the theatrical touches are exactly what she's supposed to be doing in a job she never dreamed of having.

"I didn't graduate from UMD saying, 'I'm going to own the Vista Fleet someday,' but that's what happened." Steinbach is reflecting on her path to owning one of Duluth's iconic tourist destinations while in her office, which looks more like a family room that happens to have a couple of desks in it. The other desk belongs to her husband, the co-owner and president of Vista Cruises, Inc., Justin Steinbach. They designed the office to be comfortable for their two young daughters' visits, making the balance between a family-owned business and family a little easier.

Staging the office, like the prom's lighting, comes easy to Steinbach, who received a bachelor of arts in theatre from UMD in 2002. Pursuing a bachelor of arts instead of a more focused bachelor of fine arts allowed her to broaden her study to include all aspects of theatre, aspects that are relevant on a daily basis at the Vista Fleet.

Technically, Steinbach is applying "transferrable skills", a term used to describe skills that can be applied to any type of job.

A recent survey of employers conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that businesses are looking for people like Steinbach who have transferrable skills. Here are the key findings of the study:

• Nearly all employers surveyed (93 percent) say "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major."

• Even more (95 percent) say they prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace

• About 95 percent of those surveyed also say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning

• More than 75 percent of those surveyed say they want more emphasis on five key areas including: critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings

• 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences

The skills that Steinbach acquired studying theatre at UMD are directly applicable to making the Vista Fleet successful. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that Steinbach theatre background has actually led to an improvement in the operation. Here's how it looks:

Performance > Vista Fleet Tour
The Vista Fleet tour, according to Steinbach, used to be pretty dry. Without any special training, a crewmember would ramble off the tour script. Enter Steinbach from stage left: She recognized that the tour is a performance. She created a new name for the tour guides, tour guide entertainers. Steinbach began actively recruiting theatre students and holding auditions for the job. She teaches tour guide entertainers how to read their audience and treat the tour like a play. The Vista Fleet now has eight tour guide entertainers, all UMD theatre majors, led by another UMD theatre alum.

Stage management > Events
"Producing events is, fundamentally, stage management," explained Steinbach. "The client is the director, the decorations are the set, and my staff is the stage crew."

Box office > Ticket sales
Steinbach was the box office manager for the School of Fine Arts (SFA) right after she graduated. She learned the crucial need for positive first impressions from Sherise Morgan, her supervisor at SFA, and has applied that knowledge at the Vista Fleet with her staff.

Steinbach's advice to college students is to think of skills not only as transferable, but also as abilities to explore. "Don't put yourself in a bubble," she said.

Performance, stage management, ticket sales … all are transferable skills for a UMD grad who seamlessly sailed from the stage to the sea.

"Producing events is, fundamentally, stage management."

Photo: Drawing on her theatre degree, Sarah Steinbach has transformed the Vista Fleet harbor tour experience.


Denise Ojarigi

Denise Ojarigi

Healing Minds, Transforming Lives

"Working fills me with a great sense of joy, because I am doing what I love. It doesn't even seem like this is a job," said Dr. Denise Ojarigi, '05, who is now a registered psychologist. She is a clinical supervisor in the Intensive Family Services Program at Casa Pacifica Center for Children and Families in Camarillo, Calif. However, this was not her plan when she first came to UMD.

"Ever since I was a child I wanted to be a surgeon," Ojarigi said. "I had a heart murmur and open heart surgery when I was very young. After that, I was intrigued by medicine and wanted to mend the hearts of others."

When Take Your Daughter to Work Day came around, she put on scrubs to shadow her father in the postanesthesia care unit. Later she volunteered in hospitals and jumped on the high school pre-med track of biology, chemistry, life science, and anatomy.

When she arrived at UMD as a Wallin Scholar, Ojarigi plowed forward taking more biology and chemistry. But in her freshman year, two classes caused her to change her path. A psychology class with Joie Acheson Lee exposed her to a holistic and the mind/body connection. A second class highlighted how psychology permeates family, work, social, and other aspects of life.

She considered marriage and family counseling or working as a school guidance counselor. Her advisor, Lisa Rigoni Reeves, helped her find courses to fit her interests. Assistant Professor Paula Pedersen hired her as a teaching assistant and Ojarigi became a leader in the Psi Chi/Psychology Club.

Ojarigi credits several people with making her UMD years good ones. "Festus Adda Yobo had the most wonderful sense of welcoming," she said. She knew Nika Abdullah from her hometown community of Brooklyn Park, "So I had a taste of home, too." She enjoyed spending social time in the multicultural center and with the Black Student Association. "Susanna Pelayo-Woodward created a great atmosphere," she said. In 2012, Ojarigi came back to UMD to speak to student groups and classes.

Her years in the UMD psychology program and five years of training after UMD prepared her well for her new mission. The skills she learned as she considered becoming a medical doctor — diagnosing symptoms and feeling empathy for her patients, for instance — transferred well to her career as a psychologist.

"We instill hope in families," Ojarigi said. "We help them find the resources to make their days ahead better." She feels grateful.

"Every day, people share their hopes and fears with me," Ojarigi said. "They invite me into their lives. I am where I want to be."

"I was intrigued by medicine and wanted to mend the hearts of others."

Photo: The skills Denise Ojarigi learned as she considered becoming a medical doctor have proved essential in her work as a psychologist. Photo courtesy of Carlos Soto..

Willie Monteiro

Willie Monteiro

Speaking Fluent Business

Becoming proficient in a language is one of those skills that opens doors. Minneapolis native, James "Willie" Monteiro, '84, knows. As a UMD student majoring in business and German, he spent a summer working for Control Data. One day, on his lunch hour, he bumped into Willi Illbruck. Oblivious to the fact that Illbruck was a notable German industrialist and internationally known yachtsman, Monteiro used his "sehr gut Deutsch" and struck up a conversation. This impressed the multinational manufacturing magnate. "He offered me a job on the spot, but I couldn't take it," said Monteiro.

The offer had to wait until Monteiro graduated from UMD and tried his hand at jobs in Minnesota. But in 1988, Monteiro took a position at Illbruck's company in Minneapolis.

Monteiro often traveled to another of Illbruck's manufacturing facilities in Leverkusen, Germany, and even lived there for a time. Monteiro's final adventure as Illbruck's employee took him to South America from 1990 to 1992. He set up a new manufacturing facility in São Paulo, Brazil, making automotive parts for Ford and Volkswagen plants around the world.

In 1992, Monteiro returned to the U.S. He identified a need for a business-to-business manufacturing facility. "We make products for companies that have a specialized need. We make foam components for medical, industrial, and sports equipment," Monteiro said. Along with a partner, he opened Flextech Foam in St. Louis Park, Minn., which today has grown to a productive and profitable company with 40 employees and an international client list.

Monteiro's experience illustrates the change globalization has brought to transnational markets. Monteiro, who is proficient in Portuguese along with German, now echoes what he heard from his UMD German teachers, Frau Harriet Viksna, George O'Brien, and Jonathan Conant: "Language skills are in demand."

"He offered me a job on the spot . . . "

Photo: A proficiency in languages helped launch James "Willie" Monteiro's transnational career.

Chee Vang

Chee Vang

Caring for a Community

Sometimes when you return home, you discover what you went away to find. Chee Vang, '07, grew up in a Hmong neighborhood in St. Paul and went off to UMD seeking a rewarding, exciting career. His mom, a registered nurse, wanted him to study medicine. Vang objected. "I wanted to design video games," Vang said. So he majored in computer science, but along the way, he took natural science classes and worked with children as a volunteer in the
Duluth schools.

Back in St. Paul, Vang got a job working in the computer industry and discovered it wasn't as exciting as had hoped. Helping Hmong refugee children learn English was much more rewarding, and he reconsidered becoming a medical doctor. He took a few prerequisite classes and, in 2010, he was accepted into the University of Minnesota Medical School. Vang is currently in the internship and residency phase of his training. Medical school has challenged him to embrace his two cultures.

"Deep-seated Hmong principles about health and illness often conflict with Western medicine," Vang said. Hmong believe that good health is based on spiritual balance. If an organ or body part is removed, the body is not considered spiritually whole. Vang is sure his calling is to serve the Hmong community. "I'm considering hospice care. There is a great need for doctors who respect Hmong spiritual beliefs," Vang said.

The communication, leadership, and management skills Vang obtained in his UMD computer science classes help him as a doctor, but Vang said leaving home was the most important lesson. He gained more of a worldview and shared experiences with a diverse group of fellow students. "I saw my own culture with new eyes," he said.

"I saw my own culture with new eyes."

Photo: Currently in the residency phase of medical training, Chee Vang believes his calling is to serve the Hmong community.

Evan Williams

Evan Williams

Making Global Connections

Ask Evan Williams where he'll be in ten years and he'll probably laugh. Not because he thinks it's a silly question, but because the past ten years looked nothing like what he'd originally planned. Williams believes having an imagination and taking calculated risks are critical components to success.

The Warren, Minn., native came to UMD open to possibilities. He took a wide range of classes, gleaning insights from many. In Professor Michael Sunnafrank's interpersonal communication class, "I learned how to listen to people and understand their point of view." In Intro to Theatre, "I learned how to be memorable when you only have a minute or two to make an impression."

His family always encouraged him to see people as individuals. "With my grandfather, it didn't matter where you were from or what you looked like, if you need help, he helped you," Williams said. His father was an attorney and had seen racism against MexicanAmericans who had come to Warren. "My dad was always direct: 'You will treat them as friends. You will not use racist slurs, even if you see that happening around you.' I did make friends. I got beat up a couple of times for it too. It taught me empathy, because I saw the struggle they went through."

At UMD, Williams became friends with many international students, notably Mutinta Chilala, a young woman from Zambia. "Through her, I spent most of my free time with the Black Student Association. I was always interested in diversity, in seeing different perspectives," he recalled.

Williams majored in marketing. "A big part of that developed because of the skill of the faculty, people like Praveen Aggarwal, Stephen Castleberry, Linda Rochford. Their classes were so inspiring," he said. After graduating summa cum laude in 2002, Williams went on to earn a Master of Marketing Research from The University of Georgia.

Market research fascinates him. "I like to understand what motivates people. It's marketing with an element of psychology, unlocking what's behind their choices." Early on, he resisted the temptation to view everything from a statistical standpoint. "My approach was different. For me, it's the combination of science and art."

He worked for Kraft Foods in Singapore for five years. When a new corporation, Mondelez International, formed, Williams moved to Japan as the manager of consumer insights and analytics. "I love my company. We are the world's biggest startup. They give me the ability to experiment and try new things."

His passion for new experiences led him to establish a scholarship to help UMD undergraduate marketing students study abroad. "Going to another country, even once, changes a person's perspectives forever."

Williams credits UMD with helping him to think differently than some. "That's a big advantage to a UMD education: out-of-the-box thinking, strategic thinking. In Japan, peopleare educated to think more laterally. Americans tend to educate people to solve problems."

When hiring people, he looks for individuals who are talented on multiple levels. "They should be good at analysis, but they should be great at coming up with new ideas," he said. "I look for people who can create ideas, who can create newness. Once you have that, you're an asset."

He has come back to UMD and spoken to students in Professor Stephen Castleberry's classes. "He mentored me and helped me a lot." Williams gives back because of the support he received. "I know at UMD you are not just a number. If you want to go somewhere, you can do it at UMD."

Williams encourages students to resist the urge to overplan their careers and instead focus on doing what they enjoy. "Ten years ago, if someone had told me, 'You're going to live in Japan and sell chewing gum, I wouldn't have believed them,'" he laughed. "Be curious. It's curiosity that will lead to great things.

"Be curious. It's curiosity that will lead to great things."

Photo: Evan Williams in Cape Town, South Africa. His passion for new experiences led him to establish a scholarship to help UMD undergraduate marketing students study abroad. Photo courtesy of Evan Williams.

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Last modified on 08/29/13 03:51 PM
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