Tag: Lawrence alumni

Lighting the Way With … Yaw Asare: Childhood treat becomes tasty side hustle

Yaw Asare ’96 talks to customers about his Sharay’s Ghana Style Peanut Brittle at the Downtown Appleton Farmers Market. The outdoor market continues on Saturday mornings through Oct. 31. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Yaw Asare ’96, who is putting his business savvy into a tasty new side gig.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Yaw Asare ’96 has added some new flavor to the Downtown Appleton Farmers Market.

His Sharay’s Ghana Style Peanut Brittle has become a fixture at the market since July, an early step in a business proposition that has Asare thinking big.

The 47-year-old Asare, an economics major while at Lawrence University two and a half decades ago, works as a loan documentation specialist for Investors Community Bank in Appleton. But his nights and weekends are now dominated by what he calls his new side hustle, a long-simmering dream to bring the tastes of Ghana to the United States.

“Ever since I got to the U.S., I’ve wanted to do my own thing, start my own business,” he said. “It took me a little while to figure out what I wanted to do.”

Asare settled on the peanut brittle he grew up with in Ghana, crafted from a recipe book he got from his mother. He’s introduced the brittle at the farmers market and a handful of retail outlets around the Fox Cities and hopes to grow it into a national brand as he expands to various other taste treats inspired by his homeland.

“You have to start small,” he said. “We’re starting here in the Fox Cities and then we’ll go ahead and start branching out, first throughout Wisconsin and then the Midwest and beyond.”

He has two active business partners – Walt Nocito and Orson Fournillier – in Appleton and a third silent partner in California and has contracted with Sweet Ps Pantry, an artisan confectionery in Oconomowoc, to make and package the brittle.

Sharay’s Ghana Style Peanut Brittle is now available in about 10 retail outlets in the Fox Cities.

An inspiration from childhood

Asare, who was born in Germany, lived in Ghana from age 7 until he came to the United States to study at Lawrence in the early 1990s. After first exploring the peanut brittle concept in 2016, it was a trip back to Ghana in 2018 that gave him the impetus to dive into his new venture. He ran into two former schoolmates who were operating their own peanut brittle business in Ghana, and he said they inspired him to push forward.

“What we’re talking about now is a company that takes Ghanaian products and packages them for the Western market,” Asare said. “This brittle thing is going to come first. There will be others we’ll come out with as time goes on and as we can get them developed.”

Asare worked with Sharon Pavich of Sweet Ps Pantry to perfect the recipe. The first batch came out in late 2019 with sales to friends, family, and co-workers and a deal with their first retail outlet, The Free Market, located on Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton. That led to the push into other local retail outlets and the farmers market this summer and the launch of a Sharay’s website.

“We started pushing into the Fox Cities in July of this year,” Asare said. “It’s brand new. That’s when we hit the farmers market and started getting into other retail outlets. We’re in about 10 retail outlets right now. There’s a game plan for broadening that beyond the Fox Cities. We want to be the premium provider of brittle products.”

Making that happen in the midst of a global pandemic has created its own obstacles. Not all retailers have been able to stay open. And the farmers market experience hasn’t been as robust as a typical summer season. But like many other small businesses, Asare said he’s learning to adapt.

“It’s been difficult,” he said. “At the farmers market, we can’t do taste tests or any of that sort of thing because of the regulations. We have to rely on our sales pitch and get people to buy it without first trying it.”

Yaw Asare ’96 (right) works a farmers market booth with business partner Orson Fournillier.

Finding a path

The Sharay’s recipe comes from a late 1970s Ghanaian cookbook. The name comes from Asare’s childhood nickname.

“We chop the peanuts so you get a more robust flavor from it,” Asare said. “We also use cane sugar instead of corn syrup. And then a little bit of water and salt. Some of the other extra ingredients you’d find in regular brittle like butter and corn syrup and some of the preservatives, you won’t find those in ours. When people bite into it, they find we use more peanuts than you would in a normal brittle. They find it doesn’t stick to their teeth as much, and that’s been pretty much everyone’s reaction. It doesn’t stick to your teeth is a little bit of a tag line for us.

“So far, we’ve gotten excellent response. The product is definitely different enough from regular brittle. Once people bite into it, they have a very positive reaction. … It’s pretty much on point with what I knew in Ghana.”

See more Lawrence alumni profiles here.

After graduating from Lawrence in 1996, Asare opted to stay in Appleton, and has worked in various banking, sales, and marketing roles through the years. He married Leslie, whom he met while at Lawrence. They have three children, two of whom are now in college, leaving more time for his new side project.

Asare said the lessons he learned at Lawrence and in his roles in the Appleton business community are all in play as he launches his new venture.

“This is a side job right now,” he said. “But if it grows into a full-time thing, that would be great. And if it’s nothing but a side business, well, that’s fine, too.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lighting the Way With … Jim Miller: Running where few have run before

Jim Miller ’80 runs the Old Mill Marathon through the countryside north of Burlington, Vermont, on Aug. 30.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Jim Miller ’80, whose love of running has, to say the least, been lifelong.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Jim Miller ’80 caught the marathon bug while running cross-country for Lawrence University in the late 1970s. What he’s done with that passion over the 40-plus years since puts him in very select company.

On Aug. 30, just days before turning 62, Miller ran a marathon in 2 hours, 53 minutes, 59 seconds, making him one of only four runners known to have run marathons in under 3 hours in six different decades, according to data shared at PodiumRunner.com.

That is 26.2 miles of high-level achievement spanning more than 43 years and touching the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and, now, the 2020s.

“I set a goal to get that sixth decade and I was really excited to get it,” Miller said.

To do it, he had to get a bit industrious. He initially planned to run a marathon in North Carolina in March, but it was canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc on running events across the country. He signed up for a marathon in Fargo, North Dakota, that was scheduled for late August, hoping the pandemic would loosen its grip by then. No such luck.

“At that point it seemed unlikely any marathons were going to be held the rest of this year,” Miller said.

He didn’t want to wait out the pandemic, knowing his training was on target and the body felt good.

“There’s no guarantee I’ll be healthy and fit next year,” Miller said. “I was very confident I could run a fast time right now. I’ve been in really good shape for six months, and it’s hard to maintain that indefinitely. So, I felt a sense of urgency.”

Jim Miller ’80 (center) organized the Old Mill Marathon and limited it to 14 runners.

Like Lawrentians are apt to do, he opted for ingenuity. He organized his own marathon near his home in Burlington, Vermont, named it the Old Mill Marathon, got it officially sanctioned, set up a COVID-19 safety plan, and recruited 13 local runners to run it with him.

“It’s probably the most fun I’ve had in any marathon I’ve run,” he said.

And that’s saying something. Miller has run 40 marathons through the years. The enthusiasm for it has never waned, despite injury setbacks and that inevitable march of Father Time.  

The Lawrence difference

Miller said he was a decent but not great runner in high school in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He came to Lawrence for the academics, but he opted to run for the Vikings, and that experience lit a fire inside him.

He’d go on to have a Hall of Fame career at Lawrence, earning All-America honors in cross country and track and winning two Midwest Conference (MWC) championships. By the time he graduated with a degree in economics, he held school records in the 2-mile, 3-mile, and 6-mile distances.

It was a longer run Miller took early in his time at Lawrence, though, that set him on a different path. He ran the 1977 North Dakota Marathon, well before marathon running became the widespread boom it is today, and he won, posting a time of 2:34. It felt good. He wanted more. He won in North Dakota again the next year. Then, on the advice of Lawrence alumnus and advocate Chuck Merry ’57, he entered Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, and proceeded to run an eye-opening 2:19 that got him noticed nationally.

He quickly set a new goal—the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

“My senior year at Lawrence I spent training for the Olympic Trials,” Miller said. “I got so much support on campus.”

Always chasing a goal

He moved to Vermont following Commencement in June of 1980 to continue his training. He took a number of odd jobs while focusing on his running. He worked at a store selling running shoes. He took temp jobs. He began working part-time as a janitor at a bank in Burlington.

“I became a ‘running bum’,” Miller said. “Not exactly your typical Lawrence post-graduation route.”

He set a personal record of 2:18:18 and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in both 1980 and 1984.

He never did make the U.S. Olympic team, but that part-time janitor job led to opportunities at the bank to put his economics degree to work. He would go on to forge a more than 30-year career as a trust officer and financial planner with the Merchants Trust Company.

And the running would continue, always with goals in place. He’d run one or two marathons a year when injuries weren’t sidelining him. One decade ran into the next, and while that 2:18:18 time would become a distant memory, the sub 3-hour times would continue.

“One of the key factors is enthusiasm and passion,” Miller said. “To run at my best, I need to be excited about a goal. Without that, I won’t come close to my potential. It’s really setting new goals as I age and trying to find a goal that excites me. It’s certainly not to run faster than I’ve ever run before, but it’s pretty easy to find goals that will challenge me.”

Does he have his eye on stretching his sub 3-hour brilliance to a seventh decade? That, he said, might be difficult. He’ll be 71 when 2030 rolls around.

“Even a year out our bodies change so much at this point,” Miller said. “I haven’t written it off in my mind, but that would be some challenge.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lighting the Way With … Samuel Wrenn: In search of a COVID-19 vaccine

Samuel Wrenn ’17, second from the right, poses with his research team at the Institute of Protein Design (IPD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been working in IPD research labs since 2018.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Samuel Wrenn ’17, a research scientist in Seattle.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Samuel Wrenn ’17 is doing work that most everyone on the planet has a deep interest in these days.

A research scientist at the Institute of Protein Design (IPD) at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wrenn is part of a team searching for a vaccine for COVID-19, the coronavirus that has put much of the world on lockdown for months.

Dozens of teams of scientists all over the world are racing the clock to find a vaccine. About 10 vaccine possibilities have been green-lighted for human trials and others are nearing that point, according to the World Health Organization. Until a working vaccine is delivered, a full return to normal daily activities is unlikely.

Wrenn, who majored in mathematics at Lawrence, spent eight months in New Zealand following his 2017 graduation, a chance to reconnect with his grandmother’s homeland. He then moved to Seattle in 2018 to live with a couple of fellow Lawrentians, and landed the job with IPD shortly thereafter.

His work took a severe turn when the COVID-19 crisis arrived. The virus was declared a global pandemic in March, and with his work to date in nanoparticle research, Wrenn was selected to join the COVID-19 vaccine development team.

Samuel Wrenn ’17 on chasing a vaccine: “We have at least one meeting a day to discuss results from that day’s experiments and discuss how those results shape our path forward and inform our next steps.”

To date, the U.S. has seen more than 2.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 126,000 deaths. The death toll worldwide exceeds 500,000. Despite the push on research and testing, a vaccine isn’t expected to be available until sometime in 2021, at the earliest.

Wrenn shared with us information and insight about his job and the balance between urgency and patience in the search for a vaccine.

On his role on the IPD vaccine development team:

“We are developing a protein nanoparticle vaccine, and I work with a small team of people on purification process development and biophysical characterization of the vaccine candidates. In layman terms, each protein is different and needs to be purified under different conditions. I work to identify those conditions and then to validate that the proteins are behaving in the predicted manner once they are purified.”

On the sense of urgency to find a vaccine:

“My team is highly collaborative and, in my opinion, excels in communication. There is definitely a sense of urgency, but that feeling cannot outweigh the patient, calculated method in which proper science is conducted. We have at least one meeting a day to discuss results from that day’s experiments and discuss how those results shape our path forward and inform our next steps.

“I am fortunate that the leadership in my lab and on this project is very well informed, so there is a pretty strong sense of purpose and reasoning for every decision that is made. Having that guidance helps move the project along without feeling like we are flailing. That said, the workload and the amount of work expected from each of us has certainly increased since this project began.”

On his work before the pandemic hit:

“The institute employs a core structure of research scientists and engineers to facilitate research and project progression for the labs we are affiliated with. I have been a member of the nanoparticle core since October of 2018. We specialize in projects relating to the lab’s nanoparticle platform. Because the vaccine we are developing relies on that platform, which I have been working with in various capacities for the last year and a half, I was selected to be part of the vaccine development team.

“The projects I was most closely affiliated with before this were targeted cancer therapeutic drug delivery, endosomal escape, and a variety of structural projects relating to the architecture of our nanoparticles—their assembly and construction.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lighting the Way With … Emily Muhs ’12: Running toward excellence

Emily Muhs ’12

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Emily Muhs ’12, a consultant with Bain & Company in Houston.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Emily Muhs ’12 has always been focused on goals, whether in her career, in her classes, or in her running shoes.

At Lawrence, she was a government major while excelling as a student athlete in cross country, earning all-conference honors three times.

Her journey after Lawrence has included teaching for three years in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) before going to Yale for her MBA. She now works as a consultant for Bain & Company, a global management consulting firm, in Houston, and, yes, continues to run. She’s added marathons, including last year’s Boston Marathon, to her growing list of accomplishments since leaving Lawrence.

We chatted with Muhs about the path she’s taken, the lessons learned as a runner, finding her way to a promising business career, and navigating the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On teaching in Abu Dhabi:

It was through Lawrence that l learned about teaching internationally, as several Lawrentians before me had taught abroad and enjoyed it.

I attended an international teaching fair while I was doing my 13th trimester student-teaching, and the offer to go to Abu Dhabi seemed like the best option. Not to mention there were a few Lawrentians in Abu Dhabi teaching there already. So, I decided to take the offer, and the next August I was off to the UAE.

One of the biggest things I took away from my experience was an increased appreciation for different perspectives, particularly as a history teacher. I taught students from all over the world who had learned history up to that point in a variety of countries. So, teaching history at an international school forced me to think and talk with my students about different perspectives and subjectivity in history, and, more generally, in the media.

The second takeaway I would say is it built my tolerance for taking risks. Before moving to Abu Dhabi, I had only really lived in Wisconsin — apart from studying abroad — growing up in Janesville and going to Lawrence. Moving to the Middle East was a culture shock, but taught me the importance of taking thoughtful risks, and that being uncomfortable can produce growth, which I try to keep in mind as I think about where my life and career will take me.

On getting her MBA at Yale

After three years in Abu Dhabi, I knew I wanted to come back to the United States but did not know exactly what I wanted to do. It was a natural time to pursue an advanced degree, and an MBA was the best option. I was looking for a path where I could grow and make an impact, and an MBA was the best choice to do this while setting me up for optionality long-term.

Yale had the additional benefit of being focused on “business and society.” I knew I had a lot to learn about the private sector but wanted to keep the connection to other sectors and gain a perspective on how the private, public, and nonprofit sectors interact and support one another. The MBA program at Yale was a great fit for my goals.

On how her Lawrence experience prepared her for those next steps

Reflecting back, it was the liberal arts skill set I gained at Lawrence that helped me going forward. I built my ability to learn and problem-solve. These two skills were very important as a teacher and continue to be important as a consultant. In both careers, you are required to learn very quickly, be able to tackle whatever problem is thrown at you, and adapt your approach to whatever students and clients need.

On what being a runner has taught her

My experience running has influenced how I think about goals. A big part of reaching your running goals is simply the miles and work you put in, similar to how you have to work toward your goals in many other aspects of life. At the same time, you will have bad races, and I grew to understand how to learn from them — when to see it as an off day versus when it is a sign you need to change something in your training, a mentality I try to take today into my professional life.

But honestly, the biggest thing that has carried over from my experience running at Lawrence is the community. The team was a great group of smart, motivated people who I have been lucky enough to stay connected with since leaving Lawrence.

On launching a business career at Bain & Company

We work in teams to help our clients solve challenges. For me, this has included a variety of different types of projects in technology, energy, retail, and, most recently, pro bono education work.

When I entered business school, I was not focused on a specific career path but knew I was looking for a job where I would grow, learn, and get to do analytical problem-solving while helping others. As I began to explore careers, it became clear consulting was a great fit, and Bain specifically stood out for the opportunities for growth and support. I was lucky enough to intern at Bain and decided to come back full time, where I have been since.

On COVID-19 pandemic and advice for Lawrentians

Like many others, the pandemic has changed the way I work and live, making most of my interactions virtual. As for advice for Lawrence students who are doing distance learning, there are a few things I would focus on.

First, use this extra time to invest in yourself as you are preparing to enter the workforce. Naturally, you are learning new ways to work with others online; keep building these skills and find other ways to continue to grow.

Second, stay connected to your classmates and professors at Lawrence both inside and outside of classroom time. For me at Lawrence, practices and team dinners were so important to my experience, and though those types of activities will not be quite the same, you can still set up virtual dinners or calls to stay connected and support one another.

Lastly, look for ways to support your community during this crisis. Looking online, it is clear that Lawrentians are already doing this through volunteer tutoring, donations, etc. It is a great way to continue the Lawrence culture of support and giving back, even if you are not on campus.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lighting the Way With … Kir-Sey Fam: Into the tech fray with Disney+

Kir-Sey Fam '19 holds a laptop and a stuffed Mickey Mouse toy at the Disney+ headquarters in New York.
Kir-Sey Fam ’19 joined Disney+ in New York right after graduating from Lawrence in June. The software engineer was part of the team making the massive November launch of Disney+ happen.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Kir-Sey Fam ’19, a software engineer with Disney+.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Kir-Sey Fam ’19 has been a Lawrence University alumnus for all of eight months. But he already has stories to tell.

It’s not often that you step from the stage at Commencement and immediately land in the midst of one of the most talked about media developments in the world.

Welcome to Fam’s life since graduating in June — a bachelor of arts degree with majors in mathematics, computer science, and Russian studies. Before leaving Lawrence, he was hired as a software engineer with Disney+ in New York, meaning he was jumping into the fire as Disney prepared to roll out its much-anticipated streaming service on Nov. 12.

It reportedly had 10 million sign-ups the first day, a number that has grown to nearly 29 million in the three months since. Along the way, it’s introduced the world to Baby Yoda, put the Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar libraries at subscribers’ fingertips, and reshaped the high-stakes battleground for streaming services in ways we haven’t yet wrapped our eyes around.

As a kicker, a Disney+ original show is in the works that will be set in, yes, Appleton, Wisconsin. Kristin Chenoweth will take the lead in “The Biggest Star in Appleton,” playing a mom and waitress who gets her kicks as the star of local community theater.

Fam took some time to share what life has been like in the midst of all that wonderful chaos.

On his role at Disney+:

I’m currently working as a software engineer on the Growth Engineering team. What that means on a high level is that we examine each stage of the user experience, from when someone first lands on the Disney+ page, through to when they’re watching a show or interacting with other parts of Disney+. We then work to figure out what points of friction the user faces and experiment with changes to improve the user experience and increase retention.

The methods for accomplishing these goals are varied; the project I’m working on now involves using machine learning to improve how we handle billing for each user. 

Going in, I didn’t really know what to expect as I hadn’t done any prior internships in larger companies before working at Disney. I would say that though they’re put together differently, taking classes at Lawrence engaged me with a lot of the elements that I now use in my work. 

On being part of the Disney+ launch:

As you may know, we experienced some launch-day issues related in part to the huge demand for Disney+. So, there was a bit of firefighting going on in different areas during launch. Thankfully, the services my team developed didn’t face any issues despite the huge throughput. That was a bit of a relief since my team had been on a tight deadline leading up to the launch for developing a service integral to the super bundle combining Disney+, ESPN+, and HULU subscriptions, which saw a lot of usage. 

Following the launch, you could hear people talking about Disney+ on the subway, waiting in line at stores, just everywhere. And that really gave me a sense of accomplishment and excitement to hear so many people feeling enthusiastic about something that I had worked on.

On seeing a Disney+ show being developed that’s based in Appleton (no, he’s not a consultant … yet):

Yes, I’m excited to see what they do with the show. Unfortunately, as I’m on the engineering side of things, I don’t have much to do with direct content creation.

On how his Lawrence experience, including the growth in computer science and data science during his time here, prepared him for the Disney+ job:

I would say that the classes I found most helpful were the algorithms courses I took with Professor (Joseph) Gregg, and particularly relevant now in my current project, the machine learning courses I took with Professor (Andrew) Sage.

Technology changes rapidly, and I think that the fundamentals I learned in the math/computer science department have helped ensure that I can quickly pick up any languages and frameworks that I need to use in projects. 

Aside from that, although music and Russian literature are seemingly disparate subjects from computer science, I see a deep interconnectedness in my experience and knowledge from these fields that helps bring fresh perspectives to whatever I’m working on.

More alumni: Check out these recent alumni profiles in our Lighting the Way With … series: Evan Bravos ’10, Yexue Li ’10, Rana Marks ’12, and Terry Moran ’82.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lighting the Way With … Evan Bravos: A Grammy nod on the road to a life in music

Evan Bravos ’10 calls Chicago home but he has performed all over the country and Europe: “The Midwest, and Chicago specifically, has always remained my musical epicenter.” (Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography)

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Evan Bravos ’10, an opera singer who is featured on an album nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Opera singer Evan Bravos ’10 has a new entry for his already impressive and growing resume — Grammy nominee.

The Greek-American baritone is prominently featured on a recording nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award for best choral performance. Sander: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, composed by Kurt Sander, is an original recording of Russian Orthodox choral music in English language. It’ll be in contention for a Grammy at the Jan. 26 awards show in Los Angeles.

The nomination is the latest win for Bravos as he builds an opera career from his home base in Chicago. In the past year, he has debuted with the Milwaukee Symphony in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, sang the role of Inman in the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain with Music Academy of the West, and made his debut with the Ravinia Festival in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.  

Up next is a production of The Merry Widow (Jan. 24-26) with New Philharmonic in Glen Ellyn, Illinois — Lawrence alumna Alisa Jordheim ’09 joins him in the cast — and then the Chicago premiere of Jake Heggie’s Two Remain with Chicago Fringe Opera in late March and early April before embarking on a series of performances of The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 9 Songs.

Another Grammy connection: Lawrence’s Albright featured on Bon Iver album.

Bravos came into Lawrence with the Class of 2010. He stayed for five years, graduating in 2011 with a double major in vocal performance and music education. He would go on to earn a master of music degree from Northwestern University.

“Lawrence prepared me for a life in music in more ways than I could have ever imagined,” Bravos said.

We caught up with Bravos in advance of the Grammys to talk about the Sander album, his blossoming opera career, and the work he put in at Lawrence to prepare him for the stage.

On being involved with the landmark Sander album:

Peter Jerminhov, music director at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, asked me to join him in recording an album in the summer of 2017. Chicago has been my home base since graduating from Lawrence, and I had come to know many of the churches and directors in town. Peter has quite the extensive resume, and I was very excited to join his project.

For the Kurt Sander album, we rehearsed and recorded at the New Gračanica Monastery in Lindenhurst, about an hour north of Chicago. The week of recording was monastic in and of itself. We arrived on the grounds every morning at 8 a.m. and rehearsed well into the late afternoon. For daily lunch in the humble church hall, a few of the monks and nuns prepared us very filling traditional Serbian cuisine. We were completely absorbed into the culture. The majority, if not all, of the singers recruited for this project were of Orthodox heritage — be it Greek, Russian, Serbian, Armenian or Romanian — so it was really a very exciting and collective collaboration. 

On why the project was so personally satisfying:

I grew up attending an Orthodox church in the suburbs of Chicago, though my heritage is Greek, not Russian. Growing up, I sang in the church choir, occasionally cantered for baptisms and weddings and played as organist. I had always had a fondness for Orthodox music: simple and down-to-earth, but also divine. Professionally, I had sung some of the featured works in various choirs, but this was the first project dedicated exclusively to the genre that I had been fortunate enough to work on. 

While at Lawrence, I also served as choir director of St. Nicholas, the local Greek Orthodox parish in Appleton. The job served me twofold: it helped me maintain my cultural ties while allowing me to cultivate my musical tastes. By my fifth year, the choir had grown to be the focal point of that small church. Frankly, it was the glue holding the community together. This choir was made up of only six singers, but we always sang in four parts, a rarity in most Greek churches. I can honestly say that those five years were very important to my spiritual and musical growth.

On the excitement of the Grammy nomination:

There had been some earlier buzz about it potentially happening, but I was completely shocked the day that nomination was announced.

On how his Lawrence experience prepared him for the opera stage, this recording and a myriad of other musical opportunities:

The academic and musical rigor of the college/conservatory combo was invaluable in every way. Being fully immersed in a culture of curiosity and of unending learning and surrounded by other deep thinkers who even during their college careers wanted to do more than just think was infectious in the best way possible. When I think of Lawrence, I think of Midwestern work ethic meeting global perspective: Age-old, tried and true values intersecting with an ever-more-demanding modern world. My time at LU taught me how to organize words, thoughts, and time, not to mention my craft as a singer — thank you, Kenneth Bozeman — and how to help shape my own world as an artist and the world around me. 

More here on Lawrence Conservatory of Music

See more Lighting the Way With … features on these Lawrence alumni: Yexue Li ’10, Rana Marks ’12, and Terry Moran ’82, and additional alumni features here.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lighting the Way With … Yexue Li: Mixing art, history, and a high-priced surprise

Yexue Li poses with a vase that once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor in China.
Yexue Li ’10 holds a Qianlong vase that has gotten much attention in the U.K. Purchased by a thrift store shopper for $1.21, it sold at auction for more than $600,000 at the auction house where Li works.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Yexue Li ’10, whose love of art and history has taken her to a top auction house in England. A tiny vase had her in the news.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Yexue Li ’10 found herself at the center of international media attention earlier this fall.

Well, it wasn’t so much Li who was garnering all the attention. It was the tiny vase she was holding in her hands.

As the head of Asian art at the auction house Sworders in the United Kingdom, the Lawrence University alumna was the point person for the auction of a vase that had been purchased by an unidentified shopper for 1 pound ($1.21) at a thrift store in Hertfordshire. The buyer, having generated a bit of a frenzy after sampling the vase on eBay, eventually brought it to Li at Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers to get it professionally valued.

It was quite the surprise when it was discovered that the vase once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor, a ruler in China’s Qing dynasty during the 1700s. A pre-auction estimate was set at £80,000 ($103,000), which wouldn’t have been a bad take on a £1 purchase.

Then came the Nov. 8 auction. A bidding war ensued, with the final price checking in at £484,000 (nearly $625,000). The thrift shop buyer was, to say the least, pleased.

“The gentleman vendor was in the charity shop and picked out the vase because he liked the look of it,” Li told MetroUK.

The vase is marked with a symbol that means it was destined for one of the emperor’s palaces.

“The vase is special because it comes with the inscription by the Qianlong Emperor, and he must have commissioned this vase,” Li said. “It’s a high-quality vase because it was court commissioned, so it would have been of a high value when it was made.”

Li, of China, was a studio art major at Lawrence. She initially joined Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, for an internship while she was pursuing her master’s degree. She was offered a full-time position when the internship finished.

We chatted with her via email about her work at Sworders and how her Lawrence journey prepared her for it.

On a favorite item she’s come across

We were invited to a house to look at their ceramic collection, and we saw a wood carving, which they used as a door stop. It turned out to be a zitan brush pot carved extensively with a “hundred boys” pattern, and it was later sold for £150,000.

On what she finds fulfilling about her work

I guess it’s the satisfaction after a long search of any relative documentation. It might be one sentence or a comment from the Archives of the Empirical Workshops, or a similar item in the corner of a painting. Any information that can help us understand the item better excites me. 

On how her studio art major helps guide her work

Art skills are very important in the decision-making during preparation for the sale. I am responsible for the layout of the catalogues, design of posters and other advertisements, etc. We do a lot of valuation days and house visits in the auction business. I need to be able to pick up one item and tell the owner how old it is and how much it is worth. A good communication skill is also required. In addition, there is a massive amount of research involved in my work. We need to find the previous sale records and any related documents or similar items for comparison. 

On one take-away from Lawrence that has paid dividends

It was the speaking and writing-intensive classes. Just the other day I was asked to bring the Qianlong vase to Asian Art in London headquarters to show it to the Board of Committee as a shortlist award for the most outstanding work of art of the year. I didn’t know until I walked in the room that I needed to do a presentation. My most precious experience at Lawrence was not learnt from a textbook but to always be ready and prepared for a situation like this. 

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu. Jaclyn Charais contributed to this story.

Lighting the Way With … Rana Marks: Delivering on Amazon’s sustainability plan

Rana Marks '12 poses for a photo in the Spheres, Amazon’s biodiversity conservatory in Seattle where employees can enjoy the beauty of 12,000-plus plant species from over 30 countries around the world.
Rana Marks ’12 joined Amazon’s sustainability team six months ago. She played a leading role in launching a new website chronicling the company’s sustainability initiatives.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Rana Marks ’12, who is part of the much-buzzed about sustainability efforts recently announced at Amazon.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Rana Marks ’12 is just six months removed from getting her MBA at Duke University and already the Lawrence University alumna is elbow deep in one of the year’s most talked about environmental sustainability stories.

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced in September that the global behemoth was committing to an ambitious pledge to fight climate change and be transparent about its own carbon footprint, he pointed to the launch of a new public-facing Amazon website — sustainability.aboutamazon.com — that would report and track the company’s sustainability efforts.

That new website has been the focal point for Marks since being hired in June as a program manager for sustainability at the company’s Seattle headquarters. She is part a team of about 200 employees focused on shepherding the company’s sustainability efforts.

We talked with the Chicago native — she was an economics major, singer, and tennis player during her time at Lawrence — about the road ahead and how the path that got her to Amazon happily went through Lawrence.

On her role in Amazon’s Worldwide Sustainability division

“My job has really been to manage that whole launch of the website, to work across different constituencies in sustainability and tell the story of what they’re doing, but also to work with the developers of the website,” Marks said. “I’m sort of coordinating all of those pieces. It’s a lot of pieces. It’s been a busy couple of months.”

The Amazon announcement included, among other things, a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2040, to use 100 percent renewable energy in its operations by 2030, and to be operating 100,000 electric vehicles by 2030. Bezos also said Amazon has become the first company to sign the Climate Pledge co-created with Global Optimism and is challenging other companies to sign on.

The website project was in motion long before Marks came on board. But she jumped in shortly after arriving in Seattle and helped bring the launch to fruition.

“It’s been a lot work and a lot of hours and a lot of reward,” she said.

Considering Amazon employs more than 600,000 people across the globe and touches our daily lives in a myriad of ways, the challenges ahead are huge.

“Now that we’ve said it out loud and made this public commitment, it does drive a different speed of action internally that has to happen in order to hit those goals,” Marks said.

Rana Marks ’12 stands in the Spheres, Amazon’s biodiversity conservatory in its Seattle headquarters, where employees can enjoy the beauty of 12,000-plus plant species.

On finding her place in sustainability

Marks worked briefly in sustainability for The Boldt Co. in Appleton and then in Chicago for a nonprofit advocating for the blind and visually impaired before heading to Duke to pursue her MBA. She said the work she’s doing now at Amazon meshes beautifully with her interest in both global economics and sustainability, interests that came into focus during her studies at Lawrence.

She came to Lawrence to study economics but already had thoughts of sustainability in her head. It was a trip to China through Lawrence’s Sustainable China program, led by Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs and Associate Professor of Government Jason Brozek and funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, that sealed the deal. She knew then that sustainability in some shape or form would be her calling.

“It was an experience that I still look back on really fondly,” Marks said of the China trip. “It certainly helped expand the way I thought about sustainability in a global context.”

She leaned into classes and professors with a sustainability focus. In addition to Brozek, she pointed to economics professors David Gerard and Merton Finkler as big influences.

“Having exposure to classes in natural resource economics and environmental economics developed my interest in sustainability even further,” Marks said.

Learn more about Lawrence’s sustainability initiatives here.

On exploring career paths while at Lawrence

She said she drew insight from a Lawrence business program, similar to what is now known as Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that exposed her to various career paths. That led to an internship with a utility company following her sophomore year that was focused on developing an infrastructure for electric cars. She would later study abroad in Argentina, taking classes on sustainability issues in South America that built on her global perspective.

“I look back and it was all of these little pieces over the course of my four years at Lawrence,” Marks said. “It was certainly an interest I had before coming to Lawrence, but I think the liberal arts education and the sort of dynamic way we learn at Lawrence was something that really catered to the development of my interest in this area — wanting to have a career in sustainability while also understanding the complexity of what sustainability encompasses.

“I didn’t just get a business degree and go into sustainability. It was the interactive learning, the ability to do independent study with professors who were doing things that I thought were interesting, the school giving me the opportunity to study abroad, to take a trip focused on sustainability. It was the collection of all of these experiences.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

For this seafaring Lawrence alum, life has been one shipwreck after another

John Odin Jensen '87 poses for a publicity photo at the wheel of a ship.
John Odin Jensen ’87 is the author of “Stories from the Wreckage: A Great Lakes Maritime History Inspired by Shipwrecks.” He will return to Appleton Nov. 11 for a book event at the History Museum at the Castle and to speak to Lawrence students.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

John Odin Jensen ’87 knows his way around a shipwreck.

He survived one.

Jensen grew up in Alaska in the 1970s and early ’80s, immersed in his family’s fisheries business, an isolated and often danger-filled upbringing. Then he headed to Lawrence University in 1983, a history major determined to get an education that would allow him to explore a new way of life and leave the seafaring world behind.

Mission accomplished. Sort of.

He did find a new life, earning a bachelor’s degree at Lawrence, a master’s at East Carolina University, and a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. He’s now on the history faculty at the University of West Florida.

But he never did escape the sea, or more specifically, his insatiable interest in the sea. The history of North American mariners, ships, and shipwrecks would dominate his career, from working as an engineer aboard a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Great Lakes research vessel to surveying shipwrecks as an underwater archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Now he’s written a book, Stories from the Wreckage: A Great Lakes Maritime History Inspired by Shipwrecks (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). A book tour will bring him to Appleton Nov. 11, where he’ll talk about shipwrecks and Great Lakes history from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the History Museum at the Castle, co-sponsored by Lawrence’s Cheney Fund for Excellence in History. He’ll also meet with Lawrence students in Monica Rico’s Intro to Public History class.

For info on studying history at Lawrence, see here.

We caught up with the Lawrence alumnus in advance of his visit to Appleton, which comes one day after the 44-year anniversary of the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior, arguably the most famous Great Lakes shipwreck thanks to singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and his “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Jensen talked with us about his own harrowing early adventures at sea and how his academic experiences at Lawrence set the course for what was to come.

Q: You’ve been immersed in maritime history for your entire career. What inspired the book?

A: In terms of the book itself, the inspiration was obligation and gratitude. Early in my career I had the extraordinary opportunity of getting in on the pioneering years of public underwater archaeology in Wisconsin. My work with the Wisconsin Historical Society led me to pursue a Ph.D. in history, and I know it was repeatedly instrumental to my success getting academic positions in a difficult job market. I have preached the gospel of Wisconsin public maritime heritage in classes, academic conferences, heritage policy forums and through public programs across North America from Alaska and Hawaii to New England, as well as internationally.

Everywhere I went, people were surprised and amazed by the Wisconsin/Great Lakes shipwreck heritage story. I wanted the readers of this book, particularly those from Wisconsin, to be equally surprised and enthused about their history and proud of their state’s public investment in preserving it.

Q: Speaking of inspiration. Your family was involved in commercial fisheries. How did growing up in that environment affect the decision to study maritime history?

A: Well, the conceptual underpinnings of the book and nearly all of the deeper ideas and themes I have explored as a scholar are inspired by my experiences growing up on Alaska’s coastal frontier as part of a Norwegian-American seafaring family. I began working with my dad in commercial fishing at a very young age, and this became really the center of my life and identity.

We often worked ridiculous hours; vile weather was pretty routine, and economic uncertainty was the norm. Ships sank and people I knew died — not regularly — but it was not that unusual. Our community was isolated — literally the western end of the American highway systems. The quality of available health care was marginal at best and services limited. The norms of behavior among those in the fishing community were, at minimum, colorful. As a child and young man, I had no grasp of how extreme our lives really were.

I was luckier than many people, but I witnessed and I experienced many things connected with life and work in a coastal community that marked and haunted me. The study of history — not just maritime history — has provided me with endless opportunities to make sense of, and derive positive benefits from, these experiences. 

Q: You are a shipwreck survivor yourself. What did that experience teach you?

A: This is a tough one. The book is a history inspired by shipwrecks. Typical shipwreck books look only at the actual wreck event and their surrounding circumstances.  Although dramatic — it is pretty unsatisfying because the wreck is often only a footnote or afterward in a much richer set of human stories of imagination, innovation, and success.

Like many people from my old walk of life, I have lived the human stories and the shipwreck — but very few people that I know have had the opportunity to spend decades dissecting and learning from these experiences. I have gotten to build a truly great life and a satisfying career on the foundations of one very, very bad day at the office.

Q: Did you come to Lawrence with a maritime history career in mind?

A: Absolutely not. I came to Lawrence during the winter term of 1983 to escape my maritime history. However, I was probably accepted in the first place because of my application essay, where I described how the lessons of my shipwreck experience made me a good fit for Lawrence. I guess it was my first written shipwreck history story.

Q: How did your Lawrence experience later inform your work and your career path?  

A: It was through Lawrence — particularly some amazing faculty — that I eventually learned to see broader value of my early life experiences, and I internalized a liberal arts/interdisciplinary approach to thinking and problem-solving. As a professor at the University of West Florida, I struggle consciously on a daily basis to live up to and pass on the high standards that Lawrence faculty set for academic excellence, professional integrity, and extraordinary mentoring.  

Q: What advice would you give to today’s students interested in history?

A: Now more than ever, the country and the world need people who can think historically and who are historically literate. The person who understands history has real advantages in coping with and finding opportunities in a world of perpetual change. I am biased, but an imaginative and hardworking student who completes a history major at Lawrence University will never lack for meaningful opportunities in the workforce and to make a difference in the world.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence experience inspires, informs Madhuri Vijay’s path to “The Far Field”

Portrait of Madhuri Vijay
Madhuri Vijay ’09 has earned critical praise for her debut novel, “The Far Field,” including being long-listed as a semifinalist for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The 24 semifinalists will be narrowed to six on Nov. 4. (Photo courtesy of Manvi Rao)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Madhuri Vijay ’09 was taken aback by the critical praise that accompanied the January arrival of her debut novel, The Far Field.

Now, nine months and a multi-continent book tour later, comes the announcement that her novel, published by Grove Press, has been long-listed for the prestigious 2020 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a literary honor that could push her visibility to new heights.

“The whole thing feels somewhat surreal and a bit like a dream,” Vijay said by phone from her home in Hawaii, where she and her husband are preparing for the imminent arrival of their first child. “It’s always hard to take (the honors) seriously because it always seems like someone is going to call and say, this has all been a big mistake.”

That is not going to happen.

Ten years removed from her days as a Lawrence University undergrad, Vijay has arrived as a significant young novelist. The Far Field has been short-listed for the JCB Prize for Literature, long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and has drawn stellar praise in book reviews from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and others. On Nov. 4, the 24 books long-listed for the Carnegie medal in the fiction category will be narrowed to six finalists.

Along with accolades from the literary awards circuit comes much admiration from faculty members at Lawrence who nurtured Vijay’s storytelling skills a decade ago, not to mention current students who see her as a rock star in the making.

“When Madhuri visited my creative writing class last winter — she read at LU on the day her novel was officially released — my students saw her as a kind of superhero: glamorous and whip-smart and on the verge of international fame,” said professor of English David McGlynn. “But they only glimpsed the end result of an awful lot of work and an endless amount of dedication and determination.”

The publishing of The Far Field came after a six-year writing and editing process that Vijay called grueling, exhausting, and exhilarating. The book, set mostly in Bangalore, a metropolitan area in southern India where Vijay grew up, and the more remote, mountainous regions of Kashmir, tells the story of Shalini, a restless young woman, newly graduated from college and reeling from her mother’s death, who sets out from her privileged life in Bangalore in search of a family acquaintance from her childhood. She runs smack into the unsettled and volatile politics of Kashmir.

When Vijay launched her book tour early this year, Lawrence was an important stop. She points to her time as a student here as the impetus to a life of writing. She will tell you she arrived in the fall of 2005 as a determined but narrowly focused freshman. She’ll then tell you she left four years later having explored, sampled, and embraced every nook and cranny of the liberal arts experience, a creative enlightenment that rerouted her plans, turned her focus to fiction writing, and led her to the story that became The Far Field.

She double-majored in psychology and English at Lawrence, but it wasn’t until she was midway through a 12-month Watson Fellowship following graduation that she called off her plans to go to graduate school for psychology, applying instead to the Iowa Writers Workshop, a highly focused two-year writing residency at the University of Iowa.

Details on Lawrence’s English major here

“Lawrence itself was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Vijay said. “I grew up in India, and our system of learning is in some ways very good because it’s very thorough and it’s science-based and it’s very rigorous, but it doesn’t allow for a lot of experimentation and play.

“So, when I got to Lawrence, I was overjoyed to discover that I could just dabble in all of these different things. I would take biology and Latin and I would sing in the choir and I would do all of these different things, which is the foundation of a liberal arts education. But it’s also, as I see it now, the foundation for being a good fiction writer, in that you have to be interested in everything all of the time and that nothing is divorced from the other thing. … Everything is worthy of study and everything is worthy of interest. That’s the thing I discovered at Lawrence.”

McGlynn was in his first year on the Lawrence faculty in 2006 when he first encountered Vijay, then a sophomore in his English 360 class. He recalled her being smart, poised and articulate, but her writing was far from polished.

“Her writing showed promise, but it also needed to be refined and to mature,” he said.

What made her stand out, though, was a willingness to work. That was evident from the get-go.

“She recognized her intellectual capacity, but she also knew capacity was only the beginning,” McGlynn said. “She knew she needed to work. She knew she needed to walk the path. That, more than anything, was her great gift. She remains one of the most dedicated and passionate students I have ever taught in my 13 years at Lawrence.”

With additional guidance from Tim Spurgin, the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and associate professor of English, Vijay applied to and was selected for a Watson Fellowship, funding a year of travel and study. Her Watson study was focused on people from India living in foreign lands. Her travels took her to South Africa, Malaysia, and Tanzania, among other places, and her desire to write and create grew along the away.

Details on the Watson Fellowship here

“Being on the Watson means you are alone for a year,” Vijay said. “You’re absolutely independent in that nobody is looking over your shoulder. You either do the work or you don’t, which, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a writer. No one is waiting for you to produce anything. You either do the work or you don’t. All the urgency has to come from you, and it’s a lonely profession.”

Interestingly, it was during her Watson year that she first encountered Shalini and some of the other fictional characters that would eventually become key players in The Far Field. And it was her continued correspondence with McGlynn that in part set the wheels in motion.

“I wrote a short story during the Watson that had some of these same characters in it,” Vijay said. “It was very bad. But David McGlynn read it. He is one of the few people I trust to read even my worst writing. He was the one who literally suggested, ‘Why don’t you make this a novel?’ So, I wrote about 30 pages, and that’s how I got to Iowa, on the strength of those 30 pages. But it was a very different version. It had nothing to do with the book that eventually got published.

“After I got into Iowa, I didn’t touch those 30 pages, and I didn’t think about those characters for two years. It was only after Iowa when I was thinking about what to do next that I began thinking about those characters again. … If David hadn’t said that to me, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. I may have written something different, but not this book.”

Vijay is now a year into a follow-up book project that she says has yet to fully take shape. She knows the positive reaction to The Far Field assures nothing. It’s about continuing to put in the work.

“There is no point where you arrive at some sort of certainty where you say, ‘OK, this is a guarantee,’” she said of her life as a novelist. “Every single day feels like a gamble, feels like a risk, feels like you could fall at any given moment. That point (of certainty) hasn’t arrived, and I don’t think it ever will. And I don’t think it ever should. … You should always feel like you might fall flat on your face. That is the only way to do it honestly.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu