Alumni spotlight: Contributing to the state workforce
Thousands of college students come to Minnesota each year to earn a degree at a private college. And many of them stay — sometimes even despite our challenging weather. Take Harry Griffin, who came from Alabama to earn his bachelor’s at The College of St. Scholastica. After graduating last spring, he’s sold on staying here. "I decided to stay in Minnesota because of the variety of job opportunities that are available throughout the state," he said. "Minnesota is also a great place to live because of the amazing nature and the outdoor scenes that the state has to offer.”
For more on the 10,700 undergrads our colleges enroll each year who come from outside Minnesota, read our article on attracting and retaining out-of-state students. For more on the stories of grads like Griffin, read on. We have excerpts on:
- Maya Santamaria ’94, Augsburg University – originally from Iowa
- Isaac Rice ’13, Bethany Lutheran College – originally from Michigan
- Sam Lacy ’03, Bethel University – originally from Texas
- Harry Griffin ’18, The College of St. Scholastica – originally from Alabama
- Utit Choomuang ’75, St. Olaf College – originally from Thailand
Originally from Iowa
Leaning back into a sturdy wood and wrought iron chair pulled up to a corner table at Restaurante El Nuevo Rodeo, Santamaria looks at home. Behind her, customers dot the dining area engaged in conversations that seem warm and relaxed—matching the space’s cheery mustard- and terracotta-colored walls whose rich hues are reminiscent of a southern sun, even when rays struggle to break through the stubborn, overcast sky resting above Lake Street in Minneapolis.
As a restaurateur, Santamaria is proud of the menu she created by compiling favorite dishes from the trips to Mexico that have punctuated her life. She points out Chiles en Nogada, a special entrée that fuses sweet and savory: dried fruits with ground beef. The meal is a showpiece of Mexican cuisine that’s typically prepared in the fall to accompany independence day festivities, and Santamaria says you won’t find it at other restaurants in Minnesota. The same claim of singularity and unrivaled authenticity also can be made for the musicians she books from across Mexico and throughout Latin America to perform in her nightclub, which is just upstairs.
As a former salsa band frontwoman, Santamaria is accustomed to the late nights the entertainment industry demands and to commanding attention in a crowd, although she’s perhaps most skilled at placing the Twin Cities’ growing Latino/Latina community in the spotlight.
And, as the owner of a half dozen independent but intersecting businesses, Santamaria knows about balance and fusion.
She’s an author, an entrepreneur, an innovator, and an Auggie. In addition to running El Nuevo Rodeo, Santamaria operates a real estate management business, a community festival enterprise, and several special event venues. She became the Twin Cities’ first Latina media owner when she purchased La Raza 1400 radio, and she later took on the Minnesota affiliate of Telemundo television, both of which broadcast in Spanish.
Originally from Michigan
Bethany Lutheran College has a long history with the sport of soccer. Perhaps the College was ahead of the curve when it came to the sport. There were some terrific men's Viking soccer teams as far back as 45 years ago. And the women's soccer program was among the first sports added as a new four-year institution.
The same can be said about Bethany's communication program—It's it's a leader in many ways. Bethany recently celebrated the naming of the Thomas Kuster Media Center in October 2018. The naming was certainly well deserved as the communication program was the first of our four-year majors at Bethany.
Where does this all lead? These aforementioned athletic and academic programs were and are leaders for Bethany. The communication program has already produced some very successful graduates, and thus it's no surprise that alumnus Isaac Rice ('13) is on his way to becoming a broadcast media leader in the Twin Cities. About that soccer connection, Rice didn't play soccer at Bethany but he's currently working in an important position in the soccer broadcast business. During a recent visit with Rice, his leadership was evident while he was directing the Fox Sports broadcast of the Minnesota United Major League Soccer club at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. It's quite an accomplishment for the young Bethany alumnus.
Rice is a native of the western Michigan community of Covert, and he attended Michigan Lutheran High School in St. Joseph, Michigan, graduating in 2009.
While Rice was a freshman at Michigan Lutheran, he explained that his senior locker buddy Jeff Hendrix ('10 BA, '14 MDiv) first put him in touch with Bethany and the Communication communication program. Hendrix, who also studied communication at Bethany, stayed in contact with Rice past their year together in high school and shared with him some of the details about his communication studies at Bethany.
Originally from Texas
Growing up, Sam and Matt Lacy didn’t have much. They lived in a trailer park in west Texas with their parents, who both worked to hold down steady jobs but still had to cash welfare checks to make ends meet. It was a lifestyle they were expected to inherit—so the Lacy brothers surprised everyone, including themselves, when they became the first in their family to graduate from college, a feat made possible largely by scholarships.
Now, almost two decades later, Sam ’03 and Matt ’02 have become donors themselves, establishing the Jo Lynn Lacy Scholarship at Bethel University. The scholarship, created in honor of the Lacy brothers’ mother, is meant for first-generation students who are acquainted with trauma and tasked with paying for their own education.
“We were those things,” Sam says. “My brother and I understand uniquely what it means to try to go to college without parents to walk you through it or resources to do it.”
While Sam and Matt were young, it wasn’t uncommon for their home’s power to be shut off. Their younger brother had cancer—twice. Their parents divorced and got back together. But none of this seemed out of the ordinary. Among the working poor, Sam says, life was hard.
Although Jo Lynn—whose own opportunities for education were limited—didn’t have the resources to point her sons in the direction of college, she did point them in the best direction she could: upward. “My mother told me that just because I came from poor white trash didn’t mean I had to be it,” Sam says. “She told me I could lift myself up from my humble origins and do something different.”
Sam met his future roommate, Minnesota native Tim Adams, while volunteering at a Young Life camp in North Carolina when he was 19. Adams invited him to visit Bethel—a whopping 975 miles north of the Lacy brothers’ Texas hometown. Moved by the welcome they received when they arrived in Minnesota, Sam and Matt packed up to study and play football for the Royals.
Originally from Alabama
For Harry Griffin '18, relationships have fueled his pursuits. Whether it was mentors who helped give him the confidence to move from Alabama to Minnesota, or connections with teammates and students that helped him feel at home in Duluth, Griffin has been graced with positive influences. His high school football offensive line coach, William Moguel, and family friend Doug Martin were instrumental in his personal growth.
"I was lucky enough to have great role models who pointed me in the right direction, and helped me shape priorities," Griffin said. "They both thought going up north to Duluth would be a great chance to see different places and experience life outside Alabama."
Griffin sought to be the same kind of leader in a role he took on during his senior year: assistant offensive line coach for St. Scholastica.
"I want to reach out to young men in various communities and be that positive influence for them," said Griffin, a double-major in psychology and education studies. "Plus, I absolutely love sports — from football to basketball and baseball, they've been a part of my life since I was five years old."
Since graduating in spring of 2018, he still aims to serve as a good example for athletes and students alike. He is now a resident director for Residential Life at St. Scholastica, and defensive intern with the football team.
"I decided to stay in Minnesota because of the variety of job opportunities that are available throughout the state," he said. "Minnesota is also a great place to live because of the amazing nature and the outdoor scenes that the state has to offer."
Originally from Thailand
Utit Choomuang is living a remarkable life. From the humblest of beginnings in a primitive Thai jungle to an early education by Buddhist monks to becoming an exchange student at Northfield High School and a graduate of St. Olaf College, Choomuang’s curiosity about the world led him far from home. His artistic talent, work ethic, and easygoing personality has sustained Choomuang during a distinguished career as an animation artist in California and South Korea. And finally, his desire to give back to his childhood community has brought him home to Thailand, where he farms and is continually seeking ways to build up the village of his ancestors.
The village in southern Thailand where Choomuang was born is known as Nongnokkai, or “the pond where the birds lay their eggs.” For the first several years of his life (without a paper record of his birth, he guesses he’s about 65 years old), Choomuang thought Nongnokkai was the whole universe, he says.
“We lived off the land, eating rice and fish and ants,” he says. His older siblings and parents moved about to work in various rice fields, so Choomuang was often left in the care of his grandparents. As a little boy, he waited on the nearby river’s edge, keeping an eye out for the tradesman who’d exchange a bucket of rice for a bucket of salt needed for preserving fish.
“I spent a lot of time on the river, floating, watching people,” Choomuang says. “One day, I saw a sailboat with people on it wearing clothes, so pretty and colorful, like the birds of the jungle. I was naked and I had never seen clothes before. I told my grandfather I wanted to wear those things.” So Choomuang and his grandfather went on a walk — naked still — to a school about 10 kilometers away, where the schoolchildren wore colorful clothing.
Interested in more alumni stories? Check out these past spotlights of alums whose studies cover a wide range of academic disciplines:
- Alumni spotlight: Embracing possibility, March 2018
- Alumni entrepreneurs: Farm fresh food to craft brewed, June 2017
- Alumni spotlight: Tapping into talent, Mar. 2017
- Alums find career success by pursuing their passions, June 2016
- Recent grads find their niche, Dec. 2015
- Alumni turn dreams into goals into careers, Oct. 2015