December 2020

It's often hard to predict where you'll end up after graduating from college. Zeroing in on that "something" that can be nurtured into a rewarding career while also finding fulfillment on a personal level can, at times, be at odds with one another. Not so for the five alumni featured below who transformed challenges or found opportunities, building careers they're passionate about. These excerpts include the links to the full articles.

  • Marichel Mejia '11, Macalester College
  • Kyle Obermann '14, St. Olaf College
  • Mauri Melander Friestleben '97, '00 MA, '05 EdS, University of St. Thomas
  • Shelly Peterson '18, College of Saint Benedict
  • Alfonso Mayfield '07, Bethany Lutheran College

Marichel Mejia '11

Macalester College
Marichel Mejia

Last December, Marichel Mejia ’11 sat in the House of Representatives Gallery, breathlessly watching the screen that displayed the vote tally. She sat with 40 of her colleagues: members of United Farm Workers and the UFW Foundation, all wearing their red shirts with the union’s trademark black eagle across the chest. They had spent the last year working around the clock to advocate for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would grant undocumented farmworkers a path towards legal immigration status.

They watched the board with the display of votes in nerve-wracking silence. They needed 218 supporters, a simple majority. They got 260.

Audience members aren’t supposed to say anything in the chamber, but the group stood up and shouted the famous slogan of UFW: “Si, se puede!” Yes, it can be done!

Mejia’s career with UFW and the UFW Foundation is, indeed, about getting things done. She began as an intern, was hired as an organizer, became a coordinator, and is now a national field director. Based in Los Angeles, Mejia oversees the federal-level effort to advocate for better working conditions for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers across the country. Though her role has changed, one thing has remained constant. “It ultimately boils down to the fundamentals you learn when you’re an organizer,” she says. “The ability to connect with people, the ability to empower and engage workers. Farmworkers are at the heart of what you do. It’s about keeping them at the center.”

Read the full article on Macalester's website.

Kyle Obermann '14

St. Olaf College
Kyle Obermann

“When I was at St. Olaf, if you would’ve asked me at that time what my dream job was, I would’ve said National Geographic photographer or environmental photographer. I never thought that five years down the road that’s what I would be doing — but here I am,” says Kyle Obermann ’14.

The St. Olaf College alumnus is the author and photographer of a stunning spread published recently in National Geographic. In his piece, he speaks about China’s national park plan and the difficulty of balancing conservation and the tourism industry.

“The experts all agree that though there are some bright spots in China’s new park system, it’s too early to predict how the parks will affect conservation and local livelihoods long-term,” he points out in the article. 

Obermann majored in political science at St. Olaf, with concentrations in environmental studies and Chinese. His interest in photography started in high school as a hobby.

“I picked up my mom’s camera after I finished my homework and went outside in our backyard,” he says. “I started taking photos of random stuff, and I remember my goal back then was to make my semi-boring backyard look cool or look like the Amazon.”

Now he’s a full-time conservation photographer and influencer. He works to connect “mainstream Chinese society and large corporations with environmental issues.” His work has appeared in more than just National Geographic; Obermann has also been published by the BBC, the Nature Conservancy, and more.

Read the full article on St. Olaf's website.

Mauri Melander Friestleben '97, '00 MA, '05 EdS

University of St. Thomas
Mauri Melander Friestleben

As principal of Lucy Craft Laney Community School, Mauri Melander Friestleben reminded her school community daily it was “the brightest, the most intelligent and definitely the best looking of all” over the intercom.

It’s this kind of spirit Friestleben ’97, ’00 MA, ’05 EdS infused into the core of Lucy Laney during her decade there, first as assistant principal and then as principal. She led the staff of the North Minneapolis elementary school in creating a place where children are celebrated, nurtured and championed. She fought to decrease suspension rates, and they have dropped significantly in the last five years. She sought to increase test scores, which have continued in an upward trajectory. Most importantly, she advocated for her students who now beam with pride when talking about their school.

Those efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. The Lucy Laney community was the topic of a full-length documentary, “Love Them First: Lessons From Lucy Laney Elementary,” produced by KARE 11. The film originated as a series of news stories developed by KARE 11 reporter Lindsey Seavert and photojournalist Ben Garvin. The film captured the hearts of audiences at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival where it premiered last spring, selling out its entire run and winning awards for best Minnesota-made documentary and audience choice. Since then it has taken home accolades from a variety of film festivals and aired on KARE 11 along with multiple TV stations across the country. It recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award – sort of like the Pulitzers for broadcast.

Read the full article on St. Thomas' website.

Shelly Peterson '18

College of Saint Benedict
Shelly Peterson

This spring, as the need for widespread testing for COVID-19 grew in importance, the nation got a simple lesson in logistics: Turns out that no matter how many test kits you have, testing capacity is still dependent on having the materials to administer those tests.

Suddenly swabs became a pretty big deal. For Shelly Peterson and her colleagues at Resolution Medical in Minneapolis, it was time to get creative. Peterson, a 2018 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict with a major in biochemistry, works as a product development engineer in the laser welding department at Resolution.

In April, Resolution Medical developed and released new 3D-printed lattice nasopharyngeal swabs for antigen testing including COVID-19. In August, the company released a new pre-sterilized configuration.

Global shortages of traditional flocked swabs called for innovation. Resolution Medical – an FDA-registered in vitro diagnostic and medical device manufacturer – collaborated with their partners at Carbon to create something 3D-printable.

“A huge benefit in getting the product to market was the fact that Carbon already had an FDA-approved resin available,” Peterson said. “The rush to market was hectic, but we were all working cohesively as a team to get swabs out the door.”

That resin material (KeySplint Soft® Clear material from Keystone® Industries) is something Carbon has used before in producing orthodontic and dental appliances like mouthguards. In this case, it had “the right balance of properties to make a soft, flexible swab with appropriate strength that could be printed with precision,” said Dr. Joseph DeSimone, co-founder and executive chairman at Carbon.

Read the full article on Saint Benedict's website.

Alfonso Mayfield '07

Bethany Lutheran College
Alfonso Mayfiel

After three years with Urban Ventures, [Alfonso Mayfield] wanted to get back to working with kids and started a new position as a director with Rêve Academy, helping set up student-run businesses. It was another great fit for Mayfield, he was happy to work with students, while also calling on some of his business training and knowledge. This experience eventually brought Mayfield to a new venture with 180 Degrees in St. Paul. 180 Degrees, like the other organizations that Mayfield has helped exists to “assist clients achieve their full potential.” This includes work with youth advancement programs, family support programs, and residence programs for trafficked girls, and adult men re-entering society from correctional facilities.

Mayfield is also actively building his own start-up non-profit called SAFE Homes. SAFE is an acronym for Saving Adolescents From Endangerment. He’s just launched this venture, and is actively building the program from the ground up . . .

“I decided a while ago that I wanted to be a role model for inner city youth. I wanted to be that guy that I saw when I went to Mankato. That someone who can inspire kids, and that tells them that they can be more than their past. And that’s the truth. It’s tough hearing that when you are kid in the inner city, because you don’t see it, and it doesn’t become real to you. A lot of the issues and the problems you see in the inner cities stem from fatherless homes, and that’s another reason why I want to be that role model for all sorts of kids. I am not trying to be someone else’s dad, but I want to be that positive male influence. It takes commitment, and it takes the willingness, and if we just begin to think in those ways, we can start to break our own cycles.”

Read the full article on Bethany's website.

Interested in more alumni stories? Check out these past spotlights: